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Shemini 5782   March 26, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

      This week, wedged in between stories of the war in Ukraine, were the hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be elevated to the United States Supreme Court. I find hearings like this to be a rather strange dance. Three of the Senators are using the hearing as a soapbox for their own presidential ambitions. Several others have dredged up all the complaints they had since the last Supreme Court confirmation hearings. For some people this is America at its best; for other people, these hearings serve as a reminder of all that is wrong with our country.

     I do understand that this is a “lifetime” appointment, and we want to examine carefully the quality and disposition of those who are confirmed to the bench. I do have religious concerns about how the questioning takes place and the way this judge is being treated, but that is not my point today. This senate confirmation hearing gives us all a chance to consider what the word “justice” really means.

      Justice is a critical component of Judaism. Almost every aspect of our faith depends on the concept of justice. Life may be the highest priority in Judaism, but next in line would be justice. Life without justice falls into the category of idolatry. In the world of pagans, there are all kinds of gods. There are gods of war and gods of beauty and gods of wisdom and gods of work. The role of these gods is to rule over each aspect of life. Getting what you want out of life is all about appeasing the proper god. And the fact that these various gods fight with each other means that idol worshippers would need to choose sides and choosing wrong can have a really bad effect on life. Choosing the right god and the right side can make a person very successful but choosing the wrong god and the wrong side means that life will be a disaster. There is no justice in the world of pagans. If an idolater chooses the wrong side, it is not his or her fault; the gods made them do it. Or as the late comedian Flip Wilson used to say when he was caught doing something wrong, “the Devil made me do it.”

     No such luck when a person is Jewish. There is only one God in our faith and that God gave us responsibilities in life through the Torah. And if we are aware of the Mitzvot and work hard to do what we can in this world, then God can bless us and forgive us. If we reject the Mitzvot, we bring curses down upon us as God steps away from us as we step away from God.

     But justice is more complicated than this. Justice is not only about reward and punishment. We can ask any judge in our community on any bench and discover that justice is never easy. It is never really cut and dried as to what is right and what is wrong. The Talmud teaches that a man can make his elderly father work at the grindstone and be rewarded, and a man can feed his father fattened chickens and still be punished.

     How is this possible? Details matter. If the elderly father is to be conscripted into the military or to work for the government, a man can say, “Father, you take my place here at the mill and I will serve for you in the government so that you will not be mistreated. Here I know you will be safe.” On the other hand, a man could feed his father fattened chickens, and when his father comments, “Where did you get such delicious chickens?” the man replies, “Shut up old man. Eat, and don’t ask questions” is more than just following the law. Intensions matter.

     This is why we have judges. One of the first things Moses did after the people left Egypt, was to establish courts and judges so that people who lived in close proximity to each other could resolve the day-to-day disputes that come from our being social animals. In nature, might may make right, but in human culture, what is right is decided in court. These decisions are not easy. Judaism does not have jury trials. We rely on judges to decide. Local courts had three judge panels. Appellate courts had 23 judges. The national court, the Sanhedrin, had 71 judges. Since there were always an odd number of judges, there always was a majority and a minority opinion from the court. Sometimes there were several minority opinions and all opinions mattered. It could be in one case, the majority ruled and that was the law. But there could be in the future, situations where the concerns of the minority could be important.

     Justice is so important in Judaism, that we don’t just insist upon justice, we pursue after it. We don’t allow it to elude us or get away from us. Judaism does not believe that “life is not fair;” we insist that it must be fair, and when we encounter moments of injustice, we double our efforts to understand all the events in life from a perspective of what is right and just. This means that justice applies to all levels of society. It does not matter the economic status of a person, rich or poor; we demand justice for all. It does not matter the political status of a person, laborer, judge, or president; we demand justice for all. Even when it comes to God, we demand justice. Abraham refuses to let God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because it would be unjust to destroy the righteous and the wicked together. Abraham challenges God saying, “Shall not the Judge of the earth act justly?”

     In parshat Shemini, our parsha this week, Aaron’s two oldest sons are struck down dead in the Mishkan, in front of all the people. The Torah never really says why God struck them down. There is a mention of them bringing “strange fire” into the Mishkan, but it was the first day any of the priests had officiated; why did these two men deserve to die? The Rabbis of the Talmud, a thousand years later, try to understand the justice behind God striking these two men down. We don’t know the “real” reason God killed them, but we do find it hard to believe that they were destroyed for some minor infraction. Our sense of Justice demands that we have a better understanding why God brings death into the world.

     And this is the trickiest part of justice; it is often difficult to find. We like to think of justice as black and white; some things are right, and some things are wrong. There is a reason we do not believe in vigilante justice. There is a reason that we are not allowed to take the law into our own hands. It is far too simple to see something only from our own point of view. It is much harder to find how someone else can see the same situation that we see and interpret it differently. Far too often, we can only see what we want to see; that we are right and everyone else is wrong. How can we find a way to make justice impartial?

     This is the reason that we have judges; women and men trained to be impartial; people trained in the law to see both sides fairly. Even in a place where finding the truth is hard, judges can help us discover the truth that will make all the difference in justice. Recall the story of the wisdom of King Solomon. There were two women who lived in the same home. Both of them had babies within days of each other. One of the children died in the night and the mother of that child switched the babies so that she would have the live child and the other one would have to bury the dead. The mother of the live child, however, realized that this dead child was not her child. But how could she prove it? She demanded her live child back, but the other woman insisted that the live child was her own baby. The case came before King Solomon. How could he possibly know which woman was the real mother of the child? So, he called for his guard and told him that the only fair thing to do what to cut the live child in half and give half to each mother.

     One of the two women accepted that judgement. If she could not have the child, then let them each have half. But the other woman screamed, “No, NO! Give her the baby but please, please don’t kill him! Solomon understood that only the real mother would rather give up the child than to see him die. He had discovered the real mother.

     Sometimes Justice can only be found when the facts of a case are examined closely. Pundits in the media can jabber away on why they think that their own approach is the path to justice. But a judge has to sit in on a case, listen to the different parties explain their position, ask pointed questions to see the deep truth in their words and find justice when it is most elusive.

     History is full of moments when Judaism was accused falsely of being immoral in so many different ways: deicide, poisoning wells, blood libels. Legal scholars can cite legions of cases where people were accused unjustly: the Salem witch trials, lynching, and vigilantism. Justice must be pursued to the very end, or it is no justice at all.

     Further, once a judgement has been decided, it is required to accept that judgement. When a court of three judges was seated, each party to the case selected one judge and then the two judges chose the third. The Talmud actually laughs at a man who praised the court to the sky when he won a case and then denigrated the same court when they ruled against him. Win or lose, we have to affirm justice.

     As we seek a new judge for America’s Supreme Court, we need to put aside all the political nonsense. Justice is not about politics. It is about finding the right judge to see beyond the letter of the law and to apply the law in ways that are needed in this day and age. We look to the past to find what is constant in the law, but we must look to the future if we seek to apply the law to new situations and new technologies.

     Let us all look at these confirmation hearings and think about how we can live a life that is right and just. Never think that justice doesn’t matter. It always does matter. It matters to us; it matters to our country and justice matters to God.

     May God always bless us with good judges, judges who will bring justice to the entire world as we say…

     Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784