On the pursuit of justice
Annabelle, you have identified a very important theme in Shofetim, in this week’s torah portion, namely that of JUSTICE. You’ve reminded us that we should indeed TZEDEK TZEDEK TIRDOF – chase, pursue and run after justice, justice. And that same verses gives us the reason for this pursuit: so that you will live and inherit the land that God has given you. That is to say, that our life itself, and the very quality of that life, is dependent on creating a society that is just, where wrongs are righted, where unfairness and inequality are called out and acted upon, where – as your Torah portion describes in terms very relevant to today: a society where the judicial system treats alike both rich and poor, where neither bribes are taken, nor mercy be used to excuse criminal behavior on account of poverty or lack of education. This vision of a fair society is one we cherish, both as law-abiding citizens be it in your birthplace of Singapore or almost anywhere in the world. And as Jews, we take an extra religious duty upon ourselves – to fix that world as best we can – the rallying call of Tikkun Olam.
We do it partly because we know that life isn’t fair. We know that things happen that shouldn’t, that accidents happen and we must bear the consequences, that we make mistakes and errors of judgement which have ramifications, and that we exhibit behaviours that have implications that resonate long after they took place, both for ourselves and for others. And when life isn’t fair, perhaps because life isn’t fair, we have different ways of responding, whose repercussions in turn cascade and ripple long after we have left.
One such example we can see around us in the environment. Later in Shofetim we are instructed that when besieging enemy cities, we must not cut down and destroy their fruit trees. As the Torah poignantly notes: is a tree of the field a man that can run away before you? And the answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, a resounding no. Trees cannot run away. Trees are not political. Trees cannot take sides. And trees – when they are not chopped down – tend to live much longer than we do, and even can be said to have a bigger impact on the planet than we do as well.
But rather than talk about trees today I want to talk about politics. Because as well as instructing us about the importance of justice, Shofetim can be seen as an introduction to political leadership and life after Moses.
When we read the Book of Deuteronomy it’s easy to forget that this is Moses’ swansong. That the action of the Torah has drawn to a close, and Moses spends a whole book reminding the Israelites of their time together, desperately trying to teach them one final lesson of how they need to act after he has passed away, how the Israelites should behave when they enter the land of Israel without him. Forty years of leadership has come to this. And Moses’ demonstration of leadership par excellence – of just how good a leader is – can be found in how he puts his own feelings aside, or doesn’t, but still manages to set out different visions of leadership in this Torah portion, and offer a plurality of paradigms as to the possible way forward.
Because in fact four models of leadership are pointed towards in Shofetim:
- The judges and the judicial system, for sure
- And as you also told us Annabelle in your speech, there is also the establishment of the monarchy, and all the restrictions given to the future king
- There is a leadership role for the priests – the Cohens and the Levites – as with the royalty, this is a hereditary system passing from father to son
- And there is a yet another type of leader mentioned – namely that of the prophets – who should not be self-appointed, but rather they should be recruited directly by God.
Judge, king, priest and prophet – four very different leadership systems to take the Israelite people forward in the post-Moses era. Four different strands in what will be the necessary sharing of power in the idea Israeli society.
We know it from today. A democratic society like Singapore or the State of Israel has a Prime Minister and a President, a monarchy like the UK has a Queen and long may she reign! But in all these systems the judiciary plays an important role as well, judging the legality of governmental actions and making sure there are checks and balances. The prophets we often think of as predicting the future – that’s true, they were visionaries but they also performed an important role in social commentary, much like good journalists today they were not afraid to criticize the people or its leaders and tell truth to power. That’s very much taking responsibility for a leadership role as well. And as for the priests, they find their parallels in religious leaders who step out of their pulpits and play a role in the wider society, such as the Archbishops of Canterbury or York in Britain, or the power that the Orthodox rabbinate wields currently in Israel.
Annabelle, your Torah portion teaches us many lessons, and a bit like the Urban Spaceman, there is no one, no supersonic guy like Moses. Like children becoming adults, we are being moved on from a leader who fulfils every aspect of leadership, who speaks to God face to face – to several models of leadership which may or may not work but must be attempted in order to secure the future of the Israelites. In other words, we are to be orphaned and must soon manage to construct how to be an adult, a somewhat chaotic bricolage of a variety of often competing templates.
You and I have discussed the rights of adults and the responsibilities, and you possess a mature understanding of the arduous challenges that come with being in charge. You come from a family that does not lack in models of leadership. Your great-grandfather Monty Green who in 1947 was tasked with transforming the pre-state fighting force the Haganah into a full-fledged conventional army, the Israeli Defence Force. Your grandparents – two of whom are here today, with one more who is cheering you on from Tel Aviv – have been leaders in business and in engineering, as well as pioneers in building Europe out of the aftermath of World War Two. And you have been fortunate to see two excellent role models at close hand in our community here in Singapore – your dad who gave much of both the prophetic vision and the onerous legwork involved in the fund-raising that brought me to the UHC as the first resident rabbi, and of course your mum who has been the UHC’s longest serving President and a role-model for so many in her ability to juggle bringing up you and your sisters with her business career, community leadership, as well as at your school and everything else she turns her mind to.
Children learn from their teachers but they learn from their parents most of all. Rabbis can teach how to be Jewish but at the end of the day, this is inculcated at home. Around the dinner table, the kindled Shabbat candles, the animated discussions and the putting the world to rights, and in the actions which come out of those discussions, when the light and the warmth have flickered and dissipated and the cold reality has struck us once more that there is really very much that we need to do.
Annabelle, you have learnt a lot and now you have a lot to do. Not to say that the learning has ended – Jewish learning is a lifelong process and we are all grappling with what that means. You graduate now from the BM class to the UHC Teen Group and I trust that you, as with your peers, will cut your teeth on the leadership challenges involved in its formation and development.
TZEDEK TZEDEK TIRDOF – justice, justice, you should pursue. May this phrase from your Bat Mitzvah portion continue to resonate with you all your days, Annabelle, wherever your life may take you.