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Friday Night Sermon (August 21, 2020): "Pursuing justice individually"

“Justice, justice shall you pursue” (צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף). These famous words open up this week’s Parashat, “Shoftim”. There are a lot of references to the idea of justice in this portion.

While many of these commandments are designed for us as a people to collectively love justice and perform as a people, consider that we might well want to incorporate these commandments on an individual level as well. As a people, we Israelites should set up a system of justice that is fair for everyone; as individuals, let us incorporate these principles as a guide to treat people.

If we use the blessings of the Shema as a guide, examining the first two of the paragraphs, we can perhaps apply one of those principles to this concept. The first paragraph of the Shema, which we refer to as the V’Ahavta, commands us to love G-d and perform mitzvot in the singular, in other words, individually. The next paragraph repeats the same commandments, but in the plural, as a group.

The guidelines discussed in Shoftim are pervasive and inclusive. One of the commandments states that if the basic court is not able to properly adjudicate a case, they are to turn it over to a higher court that is better able to try the case. The court is not to favor any of the subjects involved in the case in any way.

Another principle stated here is that there needs to be at least two people that can testify as witnesses for someone to be found guilty. If either of these witnesses are found to be lying, then whomever is found to be lying will suffer the penalty that would have been imposed on the guilty party. Finally, in a capital case of murder, it is these two witnesses that are responsible to be the first in carrying out the execution. These conditions highlight the seriousness of accusations.

Notice that these conditions are in place to do the best job to make sure that fair and impartial justice is carried out in our earthly courts.

While these conditions apply to cases occurring in the judicial system, perhaps we can as individuals glean some principles in our own personal lives. This was borne out in a recent adult study session of Pirkei Avot. It is interesting that a pair of verses that laid out conditions for judgement in a court case was interpreted individually by some of the participants.

Consider that we humans “hold court” in the public arena all the time. We are typically assessing and judging our fellows. Do we not view their behavior and impose a sentence?

It is valid that it is typical human behavior. While we do our best not to judge people and accept and respect people as they are, it is very hard not to have some immediate perception of someone. After all, what do people say about first impressions?

It would seem that we are thus following our hearts and our eyes when we pre-judge someone. We see what may be just a piece of their behavior and already we’re forming an opinion. The problem is that any further interactions are based on that impression. It is very possible that we are forming a very negative impression from someone who may just have had a traumatic experience or just be having a bad day. But our reaction to them may create a cascade of other negative reactions that affect each of us and others with whom we interact.

Think about it: when some stranger smiles at you for no reason at all, doesn’t that make your day?

This is not to say that we should hold a hearing to judge everyone we meet. If someone acts in a negative way to us, should we then go find two witnesses that can confirm or deny who this person is, really? And then we cross examine these people to see how valid their experiences are with this person, And of course, if we come to find out that these people were exaggerating those negative qualities, then we ostracize them! Actually, this really happens sometimes.

So we need to treat people fairly. Instead of reacting right away, let’s take a step back and give people a chance. We certainly don’t have to hold a trial every time there is the slightest doubt about how someone really is, which is all the time.

Let’s just pursue justice in our relationships and treat people with respect.

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