Land and Justice

Land and Justice

Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice. -Maria Corazon Aquino

The Torah links the concept of pursuing justice with the ability to possess the land of Israel. Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 16:20 elaborates that our ability to possess the land is actually a function of the pursuit and promotion of justice. When justice is absent or lacking, then we actually run the risk of losing our right to the land. The converse is also true, that when justice reigns, so too, our claim to the land will be unquestioned. In his own words:

“Justice – right — the shaping of all private and communal affairs in accordance with the requirements of God’s Law, is to be the one supreme goal sought purely for its own sake; a goal to which all other considerations must defer. Israel’s sole task is to pursue this goal unceasingly and with single-minded devotion, “so that you may live and take possession….” If Israel does this, it has done everything within its power to secure its physical and political existence.”

“Note that even now, when it clearly refers to the time when Israel has already completed its occupation of the Land, the text still uses the term “and take possession,” with reference to the political security that Israel will gain if it will honor and promote justice. The use of this term makes clear the crucial fact that Israel’s possession of the land can be called in question at any time, and that Israel must take possession of its land anew at every moment, as it were, by making certain that the Jewish state will honor justice and translate it into reality throughout the land.”

When injustice abounds, it nullifies our right to the land, or severely weakens it. Throughout our long history, the injustices we have perpetrated, or allowed to occur unchallenged, have invariably led to war, destruction and exile. Though we may have had right on our side, our misdeeds have consistently snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. We need to constantly earn our right to the land by being a beacon of truth, morality and justice to all. When we fulfill our mission, God fulfills His ancient promises to us.

When true justice returns to Zion, then secure peace will not be far behind.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bitton family of Great Neck, for their wholehearted hosting and pursuit of justice, peace and loving-kindness.

Shaking the Foundations

Shaking the Foundations 

If we do not maintain Justice, Justice will not maintain us. -Francis Bacon
scales-of-justice

There is an oft-repeated dictum of the Rabbis that the world is sustained by three things: Justice, Truth and Peace. (Pirkei Avot 1:18). Meaning, the institution of Justice, along with its companions Truth and Peace are three pillars that sustain the world. Harm one of the pillars, one of these foundations, and you threaten the very existence of the universe.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) takes this statement literally based on the verse “You shall not wrest (“thateh” in Hebrew) judgment.” (Deuteronomy 16:19). The literal word in Hebrew “thateh” can be understood to also mean to lean or to push in a way that will make something fall. Our unjust actions carry the danger of potentially toppling down the entire edifice of our world.

What this means, as it relates to Justice, is that if we don’t make sure that Justice is done, or if we are involved in an injustice, somehow we are eroding the basic building blocks of civilization. Fair play breaks down. Trust disappears. All human cooperation would come to a standstill, or be enmeshed in so many legal strictures as to make working together with anyone else almost impossible. That is how important the aspect of Justice is in our lives. Without a basic and sustained system of justice in society, it is very difficult to have functional and productive lives. The world would descend into anarchy.

The Sfat Emet concludes that just the act of veering from the laws of God, from what He determined is just, puts not only us, our families and our communities in danger – but it also threatens the entire world.

The converse is even truer. When we uphold justice, when we follow and strengthen God’s laws, we support, not only our world, but the entire universe.

May we merit to always be on the side of Justice, Truth and Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Saadya Epstein on being sworn in to the Armored Corps of the IDF.

 

 

Lions of Judah

Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Lions of Judah

There is something behind the throne greater than the King himself. –William Pitt, The Elder Chatham

royal lionThe Bible itself as well as subsequent Rabbinic commentators have mixed feelings regarding a monarchy. On one hand it seems to be a command that the nation of Israel should have a king. On the other hand, it seems that a monarchy may only be established if the nation desires one. If the nation wants a king, then there are certain guidelines as to the qualifications of a king as well as what he can and cannot do.

Not much after the nation of Israel conquers the land of Israel, we have the death of Joshua and the loss of centralized leadership. That time period is known biblically as the era of the Judges when over the course of a few hundred years the nation of Israel descends into civil war, chaos and anarchy. However, with the subsequent establishment of the monarchy of Israel, we relatively quickly get to corruption, idolatry and oppression, and a few hundred years after that, destruction and exile. In the long term, the difference between not having a monarchy and having one seems to be the difference between social madness and organized social madness.

Nonetheless, the Bible gives a tremendous amount of respect and importance to the historical monarchy. The desire for a king and the need to follow one to the people’s liking is the source of much drama in the biblical books of Samuel and Kings and leads to the schism between the southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) that remained loyal to the House of David and the ten northern tribes that went through various non-Davidic rulers. The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 17:15 points out to us that the kings of Israel are meant to be descendants of the tribe of “Lions”, the tribe of Judah (as David, Salomon and their descendants were – and would indicate the northern tribes were ostensibly in the wrong in following non-Judean rulers, despite God’s command and repeated intervention in the election (and assassination) of the kings of the ten tribes).

The error of non-Judean kings was repeated again during the second Temple era after the Hasmonean Revolt, where the successful Maccabees took the helm of political leadership despite being a Cohanic non-Judean family. The initial victory turned to ashes generations later as the Hasmonean line became corrupt and ends with Herod, who while an impressive builder, was a greater enemy of the Jewish people.

May we merit leadership of noble traits and correct pedigree, be they kings or otherwise.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the two lions who included Montevideo in their courageous Halachic Adventures: Dr. Ari Greenspan and Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky.

Monarchical Vacillation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shoftim-monarchical-vacillation/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Monarchical Vacillation

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” -Sir Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947

The Bible seems to be of two minds when it comes to the topic of Monarchy. On one hand it appears to be a command, that the people of Israel should appoint a king to rule them. On the other hand, both in God’s messages to the people, and as we have seen throughout history – a king is more often than not a greater curse for his subjects than a blessing.

When trying to imagine a Messianic future, there are some as well that picture the return of the Monarchy. It is prophesied that a descendant of King David will rule Israel, but will it be as King, as some benevolent tyrant, or will his powers be circumscribed by some other government institutions creating a balance of power?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 17:14 explains that the commandment to appoint a king is an optional one. It is only if the people desire and demand a king. If there is a king in place, then the Torah provides certain guidelines, restrictions and privileges for the king. But it is not a necessity for Israel to have a monarch.  It is perfectly permissible for the people of Israel to choose some other form of government for self-rule. It can even be a democracy.

May we improve the governing institutions we have and be grateful that they are not worse.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our elected officials in all their functions and capacities. May God bless them, give them wisdom, compassion and good judgment.

 

 

“Don’t do me any favors”

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shoftim-dont-do-me-any-favors/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Shoftim

“Don’t do me any favors”

“No matter how small and unimportant what we are doing may seem, if we do it well, it may soon become the step that will lead us to better things.” -Channing Pollock

Probably one of the worst displays of helpfulness is the half-hearted assistance. Someone offers to do the dishes. You are relieved by the sudden, unexpected and generous help. Your vital time is freed up to tend to other pressing matters. But the person who did the dishes, didn’t really want to do them. It was a mock kindness, a weary, lazy effort pretending to be helpful, perhaps even just seeking the claim of helpfulness, but really merely fulfilling a self-serving desire to proclaim to the world the righteousness of the impromptu dishwasher.

You return to the dishes and notice that there is a ring of hardened dirt on one, a splotch of dried grease on another, a discoloration that just won’t come off on the third. You now attack the dishes yourself with more energy, force and frustration than you would have without the Good Samaritan’s help. It is probably from such a fear of the unenthused offers of help that the phrase “Don’t do me any favors” was born, (I traced it to the Yiddish: “Ti mir nit kayn toyves”).

God has a similar attitude when it comes to certain aspects of our worship of Him, especially in the more voluntary commandments. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 17:1 highlights this on the prohibition of bringing a blemished animal as a sacrifice. He explains that it is better not to bring anything than to bring a blemished animal. It’s as if God is saying “Don’t do me any favors – if you can’t be bothered to bring me a pristine animal, if you can’t be bothered to do the commandment properly – don’t do it at all.”

It must be noted that this is a rare view in the performance of commandments. A more general philosophy is that even if someone performs a commandment imperfectly, he should continue, in the hopes and expectations that he will eventually learn to do it properly. However, on some matters, especially where we can clearly do better – God may take umbrage at a lackadaisical attitude.

May we work harder on the simple things within our reach – they count as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Punta del Este. It’s a summer destination with year-round warmth.

 

Every Man A City

Ohr Hachayim Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Every Man A City

“Man: The most complex of beings, and thus the most dependent of beings. On all that made you up, you depend.” -Andre Gide

Plato’s Republic (circa 380 BCE) is considered the first text in our possession to compare a human being to a city. The parallels are many. We are composed of many different parts. We have many requirements. We have different elements vying for attention. Despite the different parts and demands, they need to get along harmoniously, there needs to be an internal balance, otherwise the entity ceases to function.

[The rest of this Torah Insight is at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/every-man-a-city/]

 

Personal Eulogy for the Admor of the Shomrei Emunim, Rav Avraham Haim Roth

The Passing of a Prophet

I first met the Admor, as his Chasidim of the Shomrei Emunim call him, fifteen years ago. I was a cynical rationalist that had little time for excessive saintliness. However, meeting the happy man of the shiny countenance had an immediate impact on me and whether conscious or not the outward effect was that I started growing a beard from that day forward.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours together with him, usually accompanying my father, but in latter years by myself and on one occasion by his express invitation.

[The rest of the eulogy is at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/personal-eulogy-for-the-admor-of-the-shomrei-emunim-rav-avraham-haim-roth/]