Get Up: Some Thoughts About Shoftim by Jessi Roemer

Wake up. And stay awake.

This is the unified command in both this week’s texts.

Since Tisha B’Av, our prophets in the Haftarah have been comforting us – “nahamu, nahamu, ami” (“comfort, comfort my people”) – as we remember the destruction of our ancient Temple and re-mourn the long-ago exile of our leaders. The prophets have been singing to us of a redemptive future, gently promising our shattered people that we will gain a new foundation covered in precious gems, and assuring us that our grandchildren will know peace.

And while there are still two more weeks of consolation coming in the Haftarah, this week is different from those previous: We are encouraged to rise from our mourning, to wake up and shake off the stupor of despair. It is from this week’s Haftarah that the Kabbalist poet Elazar ben Moshe Azikri borrowed the most rousing phrases for his Shabbat poem, “Lecha Dodi”: “Hitoreri, hitoreri” – “Wake up, wake up!” – “Uri Uri” – “Awake, awake” – “Livshi bigdei tifartech” – “Put on your robes of majesty” – “Hitna’ari Me’afar Kumi” – “Shake off the dust and get up!”

The message? Five weeks out from Tisha B’Av, it is time to rise from mourning and exile, to re-join the world of moral responsibility. Isaiah exhorts us: “Sovevu, sovevu, tzu mi sham” (“Turn around, turn around; depart from there”); “Do not touch impurity. Keep pure as you depart from there.” A second Exodus is imminent, he implies, and if we can get with the program, this time we will not leave the land of our oppressors in haste or in flight, but rather with God marching in front of us and guarding our back. It is time to wake up and re-join the living.

This week’s partner Torah portion, Shoftim, also heralds a new coming into consciousness for the People Israel. While the Haftarah has us emerging from a period of mourning and spiritual slumber after the Temple’s destruction, Shoftim telescopes us backward in time to a moment toward the end of our wandering in the desert, just before we are about to enter the land where the Temple will eventually be built. From his deathbed outside the land of Canaan, Moshe is instructing the people how to go about building a civil society once they are settled in one place.

The theme in this portion? Wake up. Act right. Don’t let anyone fall morally asleep — individuals (including, it is specified, non-male individuals), judges, priests, towns, nations, and especially kings. Don’t fall prey to greed, don’t take bribes, don’t worship other gods, respect the authority of civil and spiritual servants. Civil and spiritual servants must not overreach: Priests may not acquire land; kings may not amass riches in excess or lose physical sight of this teaching.

In the first few verses, we hear the command: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice pursue.” This is one of our richest slogans, often used as a source text for the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, our obligation to repair the world and fight for justice.

In the spirit of pursuing justice, Shoftim contains several specific instructions for how to govern fairly — some revolutionary even today, and some surprisingly decent by the standards of the time:

  • Create an undiscriminating legal system;
  • Establish a meticulous process for inquiry in determining guilt;
  • Never rely on the account of one witness alone;
  • Always protect trees, even on the land of your enemy;
  • Take collective responsibility for an anonymous crime;
  • Offer a neighboring city the option of peaceful surrender before conquering it;
  • Do not deploy soldiers who have ambivalent hearts or who stand to die without ever having harvested their land or married their betrothed;
  • Establish and evenly distribute a proportional number of sanctuary cities to the total amount of land possessed by the nation.
  • I repeat: Establish evenly dispersed sanctuary cities throughout the nation, to where accused innocents from anywhere can flee and be protected from persecution.

There is much here that we today find morally just and imperative. But “tzedek,” like “justice” in English, does not automatically imply compassion; Shoftim also contains harsh, heartless laws and inhumane repercussions:

  • The command to slaughter everyone in the area where the People of Israel will live, lest they be influenced by strangers’ ways;
  • The instruction to loot nearby towns, impose forced labor on human beings and take them as property;
  • The insistence upon public stoning for the transgression of worshipping other gods.

In fact, rather than implying a global, moral justice, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” in the context of ancient society-building, seems more to mean that the people should steadfastly adhere to a strict system of law and order, cause and effect, transgression and punishment. “Justice” here is pretty much a set of laws defined to maintain the order of monotheism and the political dominance of the People of Israel in the land which they are about to conquer.

Fortunately, the more universal applications of justice and governance – those on the first list – shine out at us across centuries, despite the archaic and brutal context in which they arose, a context in which all the things on the second list were still acceptable. But I don’t advocate glossing over that second list, because it is to the danger of this: a narrow definition of justice, or the execution of it without compassion – the underbelly of tzedek, if you will – that we must also stay awake.

For this reason, this Shabbat I plan to chant the part about public stoning in Eicha trop, the melody of Lamentations that we chant on Tisha B’av. This is how, after reminding myself, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” I will lament the cruel behaviors that are also our human inheritance, and that we still haven’t unlearned, thousands of years later. This is how I will assert that:

We must not only be meticulous in determining guilt; we must be judicious in defining transgression to begin with, create humane structures that don’t funnel people toward incarceration, and make room for as much forgiveness and re-integration as humanly possible.

We must not only claim collective responsibility for crimes on our soil that we did not witness; we must take collective responsibility for the crimes we committed when we first came to this soil, and continue to commit, collectively.

We must not only approach other groups in peace; we must try to change the way we see them until we can see ourselves in them. And we must love ourselves. This way we will not be able to objectify, dehumanize, or demonize anyone.

This Shabbat, I will interpret the call from my ancestors through these pages, and from my predecessors through their essays, their activism, their art, their physical work – to wake up, again and again. And when the week begins, I will try, again and again, to convert that “awakeness” into practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dedicated to the life and memory of Marguerite Rosenthal, who loved her musical and activist Jewish heritage, and who dedicated her whole life to waking up and pursuing justice in the global, moral sense. And to her son, Ben, daughter-in-law Nancy, and grandchildren Leah and Ezra, who are this week emerging from their first year of mourning her death. May they be comforted – nahamu, nahamu – and may Marguerite’s legacy live on in us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.