Shabbat AM, September 10, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Over the summer I shared the comments of African American Sports talk radio host, Jason Goff, who spoke from the heart about the fears he has for his unborn child, raising him in a society in which black men have to be taught how to how to behave when accosted by the police lest one wrong move or comment end in tragedy. But on Thursday I heard from the other side. A neighborhood pastors group of black and white pastors is forming to discuss ways in which our communities can improve our neighborhood together and know each other better. Our first invite to the group was to officers who patrol our neighborhood. The police responded to the request eagerly. Four officers, one a Captain – Captain Boykins, two lieutenants and one patrolman, joined the three pastors who made the meeting. For the next hour and a half the police answered questions and shared their frustrations. Our police department is short staffed at this time – not for budgetary reasons but because so few are interested in joining police forces. The force is also depleted due to a new protocol that now sends two squad cars automatically in response to every call, instead of one, due to concerns about recent controversies at police stops. Police are very defensive knowing that every action they take is being filmed by a cell phone. The skills required of policemen has increased greatly – not only must they serve and protect, they are called upon to be computer technicians, social workers and truancy officers. In thanks for putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, not only is there rarely an expression of gratitude, people have developed a negative attitude towards them. One officer said he recently visited Stanley Clark, not a school where most families have negative experiences with the police, and a child in the class he visited told him that “police are bad people”.
We know, of course, that most police are good people. The number of activities and programs that the South Bend police organize to help children in our community is terrific. Much of this is volunteer time by police. We pastors were surprised to find out about these wonderful programs and encouraged the police to promote them more successfully.
The Torah in Deuteronomy calls for “Shoftim and shoterim to be placed in your gates”. Rashi explains this means in every city. Shoftim are judges but what are shoterim? According to biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld, the ancient shoter filled three job descriptions that sounds not so different from modern police : [A] secretary for recording, a constable for executive-punitive measures, and a messenger or attendant for rendering service to the court. Most biblical commentators also understood the shoter to serve as law enforcement – making sure that the pronouncements by the judge were carried out.
And such a function was necessary of course. The Sefer Ha Hinukh, notes that while most people wish to do good, people are also impelled to break rules, and a society cannot stand that does not have a mechanism to insist people follow its rules.
And perhaps this is why the verse “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice shalt thou pursue” follows the command to set up judges and law enforcement. Why is the word ‘tzedek’ doubled in the verse? Most likely it simply means an intense commitment to pursuing justice. But Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests that it means the judge must speak to both parties in the dispute. That is, to judge fairly we must be open to both sides, to not see such disputes as one-sided. Listening to the frustrations of local police whose sincere goal is to improve and protect the lives of South Bend residents, I realized how much my perceptions have been shaped by the barrage of news about those cases of actual injustice, magnifying them as if that was the norm.
True justice requires that we listen to all sides in a dispute. Not just out of practicality but because justice according to Torah is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew.
The rabbinic sages who lived during a period when the return of the Temple and the sacrificial service was their greatest hope nevertheless taught in a midrash that God loves justice even more than sacrifice (Devarim Rabbah). This bears out what a verse in the book of proverbs says: "To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice." Not as much as sacrifice, but "more than sacrifice."
Pursuing justice in our social circles, our communities, in our nation and in our world is a demand of whom we are as Jews. But it has to begin with ourselves. Opening ourselves up to hearing all sides in a dispute is a necessary requirement in the process of determining justice. That does not mean we follow a path of moral relativism or an ethic of ‘everybody is right and no one is in the wrong’. But it does mean we have to try not to prejudge and to acknowledge what sources influence us.
The Talmud tells of the judge, Rabbi Hanina ben Eliezer who had a tree in his field, the branches of which spread out into someone else's field. One day, a man came to Rabbi Hanina's court requesting his neighbor to remove the branches of a tree that reached into his field. Rabbi Hanina told the claimant to return the following day. This was highly unusual as Rabbi Hanina rendered his judgments immediately. But Rabbi Hanina did not respond to questions.
As soon as the man left, Rabbi Hanina sent workers to cut down the branches from his own tree that were falling into the field of his neighbor.
The next day, when the complainant came back and his neighbor was ordered by Rabbi Hanina to cut off the branches of his tree, the neighbor protested: "Why, you yourself have a tree with branches falling into someone else's area!"
Rabbi Hanina calmly answered, "Please go out to my field and check - make sure to keep yours the same way mine is kept."
Before a person can serve as a judge of others, one must first stand in judgment of oneself. This is why the Torah states, “Shoftim v’Shoterim titen l’kha” Usually translated as “Judges and magistrates you shall provide for yourselves”, but it can be read as “Judges you shall make yourselves”. A judge, like a parent or a teacher, is called to both stand in judgment of others and model for them. A judge's effectiveness, as is a parent or teacher, is dependent as much upon who he/she is as what he/she says.
As we enter the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, let us consider how we judge others, and make sure that we judge ourselves first.