The catastrophic images of the extrajudicial executions of 18 suspected collaborators in Gaza, the horrific YouTube of the beheading of journalist James Foley, so reminiscent of Daniel Pearl's similar grisly death in Pakistan in 2002, the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and the painful words composing these stories, touch the deepest parts of our minds and hearts. Injustice seems to abound.
This week's Torah reading ,Shoftim, contains one of the most famous lines in Torah - Tzedek, tzedek tirdof- justice, justice you shall pursue. Moses, the lawgiver, emphasizes to the Israelites, at the end of their journey, as they are poised to enter the Promised Land, the guidelines for creating a sacred community built first and foremost on justice, on judges and courts of law.
I have only been in a court of law once, when I was called for jury duty for a murder trial where the death penalty was not sought by the prosecutor. I've watched all the Perry Masons, Law and Order, Boston Legal, NYPD Blue and LA Law shows that time allowed. I thought I would be blase about the process. More than half of the jury pool was dismissed as they either knew the victim or the alleged murder, were familiar with one of the lawyers or law firms, were a patient of or married to a doctor who had treated the victim; the rest of us were called for the voir dire. Asked to swear that I would tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I affirmed that I would. An immediate sign to the lawyers and the sitting Judge that I was an observant Jew. With that signal, the questioning began ..where did I live, had I ever been arrested, what was my academic pedigree, did I work, and then about the background of my husband and children. The Judge inquired if the Jewish Federation would be able to manage if I were absent for a three or four week trial; I assured him I would hardly be missed. How old were my children, where did they go to school, what do they do for a living?
As it turns out one of my daughters went to a prominent law school in New Haven was a prosecutor, a US attorney in New York heading up the crime division, and more recently served as chief investigator of Governor Cuomo's aborted Moreland Commission; one of my sons, who also went to a top notch law school, had just been appointed head of the Juvenile Public Defenders' office in New Orleans, and my youngest son was then in his first year at the same prominent law school in New Haven. He will shortly become an Assistant U.S. attorney, here in New Haven. With alacrity and unanimity, I was dismissed by both the prosecution and the defense, and someone murmured that "there was all too much education in the family."
True story. I have myself contemplated why the youngest three of my six children are lawyers and come to the conclusion it is not just a coincidence. They grew up in a family where issues of justice and Jewish law were familiar topics of conversation. They have been subjected to arguments about justice around the dinner table from the time they could hold a spoon. They had to find a way to enter the conversation of older siblings who themselves are pretty competent at making their own cases. Danya, Joshua and Avi have a seriousness about moral justice, a passion for doing what is right, and are blessed with the gifts of intelligence, eloquence, and compassion. And humor.
Okay. It was always a noisy household! and the kids could almost always win an argument with us on the issues if not on wearing us down with their perseverance and superior debating techniques. Yes, I'm proud of them, but I'm particularly proud that they have chosen professions where they could challenge, enrich and work for pursuing justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.
Both Danya and Joshua were students at Harvard where they were one of the more than 14,000 students who have taken Harvard's wildly popular course on Justice with Professor Michael Sandel, a moral philosopher whose class discusses Wall Street bonuses, same sex marriage, the role of religion in the public square, meritocratic theory, the ticking bomb dilemma along with Aristotle, Kant and John Rawls. In his book "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do", a short form of the 13 week course, readers are provocatively presented with the ethical questions we confront in everyday life about law and the large issues of social policy.
In the conclusion to his book, Sandal writes about justice and the common good. He proposes that we need a more robust and engaged civic life in order to achieve a promising basis for a just, moral society.
Deuteronomy beseeches the Children of Israel to take mitzvot beyond the sphere of private observance and apply them to the entire social and political order. The justice system must be just, the poor must be taken care of, the refugee must be given safe harbor, the laws and norms of Torah must govern education and health care, environmental policies, treatment of minorities, and distribution of wealth.
It is a grand and demanding vision; one which we often fail to uphold - both here and in Israel. The newspapers and tv screens lately reveal how quickly hatred, sectarianism, violence and racism can infect the politics and morals of a society. It is essential to speedily bring the perpetrators to justice as Netanyahu promised after the immolation of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists almost two months ago. He also needs to make certain that the highest ideals of dignity and respect are taught in every school and to all the inhabitants in Israel so that young people do not turn to hatred. Justice, justice we shall pursue.
This week's parasha reminds us that we operate under pressures of scarcity, of concerns for security, and are subject to shortcomings. These lapses are judged severely - and we, even when we do not succeed, we must try, try again as the maxim of Edward Hickson in his "Moral Song" tells us: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
A great deal of scholarly ink has been spilled and rabbinic exegesis has been spent in trying to understand why the word "justice" is doubled. Perhaps, we ought to put more emphasis on the word "pursue". The obligation to pursue justice precedes the obligation to achieve it.
When we fail, we need to redouble our efforts. If we continually pursue justice, it is in keeping with the benefit of the common good and our timeless Jewish commitment to righteousness.