At the Intersection of Justice & Peace

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At the Intersection of Justice & Peace

Cantor Seth Warner

Shabbat Shoftim

It might seem redundant that the language of our prayers and the texts we read from week to week don’t really vary that much.  Sure, we change them up a little bit, with different musical settings, with different prayers highlighted and with different passages of Torah commented on.  But on the whole, the fundamentals of what is in the Torah and in the prayer book doesn’t change all that often. Changes to our prayer book, for example, are made with great thought and process.  And, to be perfectly clear, the Torah itself hasn’t been changed or altered in any way since its codification. It is perfect and sacred and complete just the way it is and has been so for centuries.

What does change is us: we hurt, we lose, we gain and we celebrate, we struggle, we regress, we fight, we make-up, we learn and we grow.  We are dynamic creatures of habit, so since our texts never change, perhaps we might look at them as a mirror that reflects back at us our own selves so that we might notice how we’ve changed since last looking. 

What shines back at me in the metaphorical mirror is how I have never experienced such uneasiness, distrust and brokenness in our society.  Never before have I felt such a strong disconnect between what I know to be just and right, and the national undercurrent of hate, violence and divisive rhetoric. So, in my study of Shoftim this week, which I’ve studied countless times before, some new themes have emerged for me that reflect back and provide me some consolation, positive challenge and hope.

Moses reminds us again that we are to worship no other gods besides the one God that is the ruler of the universe.  No president or king or queen or rule can even come close, no matter how bad he or she wants, there is no taking the place of God in our world.  I don’t expect a lot of divine intervention in my life and I don’t believe that God is the answer to everything – or even most things – but I do believe that there no person, no matter what, who can replace God.  To appreciate this gives me some consolation; perhaps I needed a reminder of God’s importance to me.

As much banter and bologna comes off Twitter and in the political rhetoric of the White House, I am comforted in Moses’ reminder that God is and always will be at the apex of our tradition. And Moses even goes further cautioning the Israelites to beware of false prophets who ask for followers. There are none – period – and Christians and Jews, alike and Muslims too, have texts like Deuteronomy and Koran that remind us that false prophets, (especially self-proclaimed ones), have no place in our belief system.  To be sure, they have no place in any civilized society, either.

There is a phrase in this week’s portion that stands out as one of the most important in the Torah: Tzedek, tzedek Tirdof, Justice, justice you shall pursue.  We are called, expected and held accountable for pursuing justice. As we’re fond of saying, there are no accidents or mistakes in the Torah, so you might ask yourself why is the word tzedek repeated?  Our commentators of old love when there’s something seemingly amiss, and they take every opportunity to scrutinize it.  The answer that I find to be most meaningful comes from the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Bunim, the 17th Century Hassidic leader from Poland. He suggests that the reason for the repeated word tzedek is that the Torah is saying we must “pursue justice justly, and that the worthiest of goals will be rendered less worthy if we have to compromise justice to achieve it.” The reason this is so resonant with me is that my primary emotion over our president’s deplorable remarks in the wake of Charlottesville was anger. I was angry that the person in the highest office in the land made it clear that his loyalties include white supremacists and anti-Semites.  My anger is tempered by the fact that we are commanded to search, pursue and secure justice.  The Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism has partnered with several clergy organizations including the Central Conference of American Rabbis to forgo the annual High Holidays call that rabbis have held with the president for many years, saying, “We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”  The RAC makes it clear that their goal is to continue to demand, pursue and ferret out justice.

I find that I have needed some peacefulness this week.  I keep coming back to the text of Hashkiveinu – from a reading that has been around since the year 860 – shield us and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings, Your sukkat shlomecha – the peacefulness of Your surrounding. I imagine a soft and full embrace of someone I love to bring that peacefulness to mind.  Maybe for you, it’s Oseh Shalom or Shema or joyful melodies of the Torah procession – whatever the case, our prayer book asks nothing of us except to be in the moment as it accepts us right where we are – angry, disappointed, dismayed, or whatever.

When the great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein learned of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, he was immediately frozen by the news, as Bernstein and Kennedy had become very close friends.  Bernstein attended the United Jewish Appeal Dinner in New York three days after the assassination where then President Lyndon Johnson was scheduled to speak but understandably canceled.  Bernstein was asked to fill-in for Johnson at the event with some 18,000 in attendance and he concluded with these remarks: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

I hope it’s obvious that my point is not to impress upon you my political beliefs or influence you to change anything you may have believed when you walked in the door tonight. My point is to describe my process of understanding our current events though a lens of tradition, text and prayer. What I see in that mirror of tradition is support, acceptance and possibility.  Feeling acknowledged by Shoftim and our liturgy is enough.  The perspective of where God is in relationship to all of this, the call to action of tzedek tzedek tirdof, and the addition of calm and rest reminds me to work hard for justice in the right way and feel supported by my beliefs while not forgetting that rest and renewal is needed for meaningful change. 

No matter what we feel, because remember, we are always changing – our texts are timeless and unwavering.  We will continue to make our music, we will continue to remember our texts and stories. For what we may see when we turn to them is a reflection that can guide, ground and inspire us for positive change.

Cantor Seth Warner has proudly served at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis since 2007.
He serves the community as a chaplain for first responders in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area and is a member of the Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM). He is an active member of the American Conference of Cantors, currently serves as an officer on its Executive Board.
Seth and his wife, Shayna, are the proud parents of two boys.