This week’s Torah Portion, Shoftim, has a special place in my heart. It was my nephew Zachary’s Bar Mitzvah portion 2 years ago. I was so fortunate to teach it to him from the beginning, and then co-officiate on his special day at the top of Masada with our entire family. Our trip was one of the best times of my life, and these are moments that I am hanging onto for dear life right now as we plod our way through this challenging time of the pandemic.
One of the things which made this parsha perfect for him is the part about us being instructed to appoint judges in order to fairly execute judgment. Zachary’s parents are self-proclaimed atheists who are cultural Jews, and admittedly do not believe in God. Zachary and I were able to discuss this openly during our study sessions, and he realized that a belief in God looks different for many people, and that prayer comes in many forms, including the pursuit of justice, which our family is very passionate about.
As Citizens, we are incredibly reliant upon our justice system to fairly execute the fate of many individuals. In my opinion, they have failed miserably in many cases. For example, while the 13th amendment abolished slavery, it still exists tenfold because of the mass incarcerations which were modulated significantly by the Executive Branch of our government during the 1990s. We hear of cases time and time again where people of a certain socioeconomic status will be incarcerated for the entire lives just for possession of drugs which are now legal in our state and many others.Where was the Judicial branch here? Why is the Executive Branch given so much power so as to increase these incarcerations? It is important to realize that these prisoners are basically working as modern-day slaves, making less than slave wages, with no chance of saving, getting out, or redemption. Often, the Executive Branch will indeed write laws which greatly benefit us as citizens. Then as soon as another is appointed to this branch, they are promptly obliterated. For example, in Jan of this year, a controversial plan was revealed by the white house to permit drilling in most U.S. continental shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, reviving a more restricted drilling plan that our previous administration considered and scrapped.
Clearly, there are “good people on both sides”, which means for us, in terms of our Executive Branch and our Justice system, everyone on both sides of the political spectrum in this seat has made mistakes. Let’s face it, not everyone in this congregation will agree about the efficacy of the Executive Branch. This is forgivable. What is unforgivable is to ignore our Jewish teachings, and to look the other way when we may financially or otherwise be benefiting from their policies, placing all of our value on this rather than our values as Jews. Or to look the other way because of our fear of things that are different. We also read in Shoftim that we are not to offer a “blemished sacrifice”. The sacrifices of Temple times have turned to our prayers today. Prayer comes in many forms, including the reading of Torah, the doings of our hands, minds, and bodies, tikkun olam, and our commitment to keeping the justices prescribed in our Torah. Let us never lose sight of this commandment, even if we are afraid out of our minds. Let us trust that we are cared for and loved by an unending love. Please join me in a daily prayer to God to bring us together again, to give us health, safety, and to restore our physical human connections with family, friends, and community. And that it may come soon.