On the Journey for Justice

How is this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, like a sheep?

Hm. Perhaps I am racing ahead a bit…

Let me tell you a true story.

Last Monday I literally ran out of the office.

I had spent the whole day calendaring with our Interim Educator  and I was late, very late, for a very important date! I felt a little overdressed with somewhere to go. I took one look at the sun belting down as I got into my car… and thought to myself: “I should have packed sunscreen and brought a bottle of water – oh, well!” as I then drove the fifteen minutes downtown to the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

The reason: I had just received word that weekend that America’s Journey for Justice had been re-routed from Charlotte to Columbia and this area was to be an anchor city for four days of the march. Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Doberne-Shorr were marching as well as many other Carolinian colleagues and rabbis from around the country. The very least I could do was spend an hour in Tikkun Olam/repairing the world work, along with these my colleagues in my temporary “home-town”.

But perhaps I am racing ahead on the journey of telling you this story.

Let me back up some.

At the beginning of this summer, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism’s social action and lobbying arm announced that Reform Jews, Rabbis and Youth would have the opportunity to march with the National Association for the Advancement of Color People on America’s Journey for Justice. This historic journey, an 860 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, is designed to mobilize activists and place focus on the national advocacy agenda for the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. At the State House, they were just readying to surpass 500 miles of their trek. In every state that the journeyers visit… a different social issue is focused on.[i]

In the Torah portions of last week, this week, and next week, almost every few verses a different social issue is focused on. Last week, Shoftim, this week Ki Tetze and next week, Ki Tavo, like this Journey for Justice, focus on the laws to make a society fair, equable, safe and well run. Beginning with the emphatic words of Shoftim “Justice, justice you shall pursue”[ii], the laws notated in our three Torah portions deal with in Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s, phraseology:  “the social weal.”

In amongst the many laws of these three Torah sections we find commandments on issues as far and wide as fair economics, murder, the rules of war, the rebellious son, how to deal with the criminal, maintaining good societal boundaries, physical hygiene, charging interest, fulfilling vows and much, nuch more for the well running of a fair society.

We also find one really strange law that the rabbis have puzzled over for centuries. This is the law of sha’atnez. “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.”[iii]

Commentators have asked many hard questions about this law. Why are we not allowed to wear wool and linen together? The rabbis called this rule a Chok, a specific type of rule that is there for no apparent reason. As the 11th century commentator Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, RASHI, wrote: “What is this command? What logic is there to it?” Why can’t we wear linen and wool together? There is no reason, or no reason that we are capable of grasping.

Now, just because we don’t know “why”  in Jewish tradition, does not mean that commentators have not tried to ascertain some logic.

Which brings me back to my sheep.

The Kabbalists, the mystics of Judaism suggest that at the end of days, when the world is of an elevated consciousness, there will also be a radical change to the state of animals, who will evolve into an intellectual state similar to that of current humans. With that in mind, the commentator Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote at the end of the nineteenth century:

“Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other, its fleece…. There would be no impropriety in taking the wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool when its natural owner needs it. Intellectually, we recognize that this is a form of theft — oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong.”[iv]

In the time to come, when animals consciousness is raised, Rav Kook suggests that we will need to be able to distinguish between the difference of wool and linen. Linen taken from the flax plant will not impoverish the plant. But fleecing the sheep, will take from the animal something it needs.

Whether we buy into the notion that the consciousness of animals will be elevated at the end of days, or the analogy that Rav Kook makes to try to understand why wool and linen cannot be worn together,  does not matter. The essential lesson that Rav Kook is teaching is similar to the message that those marching on America’s Journey for Justice are trying to convey.  In our society, it is a form of theft, when we oppress the weak at the hands of the strong.

We fleece fellow Americans when they must work long hours but are unable to make a living wage.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have access to bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, where only the rich can shop, because transportation will not take those of lesser economic circumstance out of the neighborhood, where only expensive mom and pop stores provide the essentials of life.

We fleece fellow Americans when their children do not have access to the same educational  opportunities that the kids in richer neighborhoods are given.

We fleece ourselves as s society when these children do not have the education tools, such as paper, text books, computers, that will stretch their thinking to be the best it can be.

We fleece fellow Americans when they are given longer sentences because of the color of their skin and nationality for similar offences to white people.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have the same access to voting rights.

When I ran out of the office last Monday, the words of last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion were ringing in my ears. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The Social Weal needs to be fair and equitable. What am I, a Jewish leader, doing to make it happen? What are we as Jewish individuals doing to make it happen? What are we as a Jewish community doing to make it happen?

As people of privilege, it is easy for us to sit comfortably in our home and our synagogue and just talk the talk of justice. The Journey for Justice, was walking the walk, in the hope that footsteps would be heard and echoed throughout the land. Their steps and voices will grow louder as they get closer to the Washington Mall. Their steps and voices will grow louder as we amplify their story in the press and pulpit, in our homes and on our ways.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that historic march 50 years ago as “praying with his feet.” Last Monday I witnessed Blacks, Jews and others, journeying, praying with their feet. Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our minds, our heart, our determination, that we too can be involved in some small or large way in our lives, in making for a more equitable and fair society.  Living up to the words of Torah, perpetuating the Jewish legacy of justice for us and for the society we live in.

And let us say… Amen.

[i] http://www.naacp.org/ajfj

[ii] Deut 16:20

[iii] Deut 22:11

[iv] Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 97

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