September 9th: Shoftim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
My assignment this week (albeit self-imposed) is to combine three time-convergent themes: Labor Day, the Anniversary of September 11, 2001, and, of course, the Torah portion. I believe that they can teach some similar lessons.
Our Torah portion communicates the value of justice and fairness. In Deuteronomy 16, we read: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the pleas of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
The issue here is the court system and its integrity, but the general principle of justice has been expressed over and over again in Deuteronomy. Society and business are to be conducted with fairness and with a due regard for the rights and dignity of all participants—even the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. In the case of the Labor Movement, the concern is that workers should be treated fairly and given decent wages. The Bible does not specifically address organized labor, but the principle of fairness and dignity for workers is a core teaching of the Torah.
An interesting Jewish connection with the early Labor Movement is that many Jews switched the traditional religious Messianism of Judaism for a belief in the messianic promise of Socialism and Communism. As the Modern Age dawned and as some Jews began to doubt the traditional teachings, they looked for other ways to fix the world. Karl Marx and his philosophy’s various “children” attracted many Jews. Indeed, the persistent Liberalism of much of the Jewish population can be traced to this tikkun olam mentality transplanted from the mystical to the political.
Of course, religious Judaism also realizes the importance of the political in tikkun olam, and we can see a lovely example in the following prayer for social justice. (Originally composed for the 1940 Union Prayer Book of Reform Judaism, we have a slightly adapted version in our Siddur B’rit Shalom, page 95. Note the reference to Pennsylvania coal miners—an issue of pertinent importance to the guiding rabbi of the prayer book, Dr. Solomon Freehof of Pittsburgh.)
“How much we owe to the labors of our brothers and sisters! Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm, enlist in outposts of peril that we may be secure, and brave the terrors of the unknown for truths that shed light on our way. Numberless gifts have been laid in our cradles as our birthright.
Let us then, O Lord, be just and great-hearted in our dealings with others, sharing with them the fruit of our common labor, acknowledging before You that we are but stewards of whatever we possess. Help us to be among those who are willing to sacrifice that others may not hunger, who dare to be bearers of light in the dark loneliness of stricken lives, who struggle and even bleed for the triumph of righteousness. So may we be co-workers with You in the building of Your kingdom, which has been our vision and goal through the ages.”
Notice how the prayer begins with appreciation for the labors of others and then moves to a sense of responsibility and participation with God in perfecting the world. In Kabbalistic terms, we are invited to be part of the Shefa, the flow of blessings from God to the world. We get blessings from God and other vessels of Divine energy—people who dig far away from the sun that we may be warm and enlist in outposts of peril that we may be secure, and we are offered the opportunity to spread our blessings to others.
There are obviously many questions about the specifics of justice, fairness, and dignity in employment, but the Scriptural goal is, in the words of Deuteronomy: justice, justice!
A final thought. One of the most amazing stories in the 9/11 narrative is what happened on the airplane that crashed near Shanksville. The people who rushed the cockpit knew that their actions would not save them—that they were going to die. Their decision was to take the short time remaining in their lives and give themselves to a greater cause: stopping the plane from being crashed into the U.S. Capitol.
I pray that none of us are ever in that desperate a situation, but the fact is that we, too, are short-timers. Our time in this life is of limited duration, and, though in a profoundly less dramatic way, we too have to decide how we are going to spend the time remaining to us. Our religion calls on us to expand our purview and realize our potential godly significance. As we read in our prayer books, “Eternal God, help us to walk with good companions, to live with hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts, that we may lie down in peace and rise up to find our hearts waiting to do Your will.”
We, who get to get up every morning and live, should remember and actualize our holy opportunities.