Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
At the very beginning of the weekly Torah portion, Moses makes mention of the breadth of people standing before him. There is no question about a hierarchy – the heads of the tribes and the tribesmen themselves, the women and children, the strangers to the people of Israel, all the way to “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water.” (Deuteronomy 29:11)
I always remember one of my favorite jokes when I get to this verse, abbreviated here because I almost certainly have told it to you. At least once. This little Jewish guy applies for a job as a lumberjack. His audition is spectacular, including chopping down a huge tree with such speed and strength that it flies up in the air, enabling him to split it into firewood on its way down. “Where did you learn to chop wood like that?” asks the foreman. The guy responds, “In the Sahara Forest.” The foreman says, “Don’t you mean the Sahara Desert?” The guy replies, “Sure. Now.”
What could be more useless a skill among people wandering in a wilderness than a hewer of wood? Perhaps only a drawer of water. That’s especially true because God has just made the point that all the needs of the Israelites were provided for during the past forty years. And add to that the fact that entire generation that left Egypt has, by this time, died, and we know that the hewers and drawers are laborers who have been taught skills by their fathers that play no productive role in the economy of the moment.
Likely, those skills will be valued again when the people settle in the land. But until that time, Moses honors them by acknowledging that the collective "you" he addresses is not complete without the individuals who are, at that moment, the least among them. The worth of a person is not measured in utilitarian terms. Unless there is a specific task at hand that requires a skill set, everyone is indeed created equal.
That sense of equality pervades the Torah from start to finish. I am not suggesting that there are not divisions among the human family in which the Bible makes value judgments – the Amalekites bear an irreversible blemish whereas somehow the Egyptians receive most favored nation status – but in terms of simple dignity, we posit fair and equal treatment for all. And I make that claim in spite of some evidence to the contrary because as the centuries wear on Jewish scholars place more and more emphasis on commonality and less and less on inherent differences.
I had hoped to hear more of that kind of aspirational equality in the campaigns being conducted for various offices. Alas, I am hearing less and less. One national candidate is making history with his rhetoric dividing the United States from the rest of the world and citizen from citizen. But the other one also seems to be treating some people as more important than others. I guess pandering to voting blocks is how you win elections these days, but while the two major candidates are playing rich against rich and middle class against middle class, who is speaking up for the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, those people whose parents' skills, passed lovingly to the next generation, play no productive role in the economy of the moment?
It's funny the two things that brought this notion to my mind. A dear friend of mine who has found his way namelessly into a bunch of these columns made me notice the neglected and forgotten. He wrote about it much better than I can, so I won't steal his thunder.
And a guy I met incidentally the other day filled in the rest. I was a sort of fly on the wall during a remarkable radio interview. While awaiting the subject's arrival, I had a chance to chat with the sound engineer. His story was really old school, mostly without the school. Fascinated by the movie business, he took odd jobs and apprenticeships when he was young and learned by doing almost every aspect of the industry. Eventually, he moved to television just at the time when the technical aspects of TV were catching up with films. There he encountered teams of specialists whose expertise came from specific technical training – no one was the kind of media generalist he had become. He makes a good living and he does satisfying work, but a lot of his skills belong to the past. In the economy of the moment, no one has need for a guy who can run a moviola or who can match sound effects with 35mm prints. Those things belong to the Sahara Forest.
But I am pretty certain that, like hewers and drawers in the wilderness, the huge entertainment conglomerate for which he works would not be complete without him. He brings what he knows and he brings who he is and he does a pretty good imitation of a radio sound engineer. He just needs to know that he is valued.
Not a lot of people hew and draw these days. And spell-check does not recognize "moviola." Certain skills become less and less necessary as others emerge to replace them. But the people who hold those skills should be recognized for their worth, and not just because they fill out some demographic that can swing an election. Rather, because they matter.
According to the choices I make in broadcast television (including network news), my body and mind ought rightly to be falling apart. I should have aching joints, difficulty peeing, depression and jiggly legs. I should have shingles, pneumonia and memory loss, the latter of which can be treated with an ingredient found…in jellyfish!!! I know this because the advertising directed at viewers of these programs tells me so. I used to be reminded about the best part of waking up, and before that advised to get a bucket of chicken and have a barrel of fun. Now, I am encouraged to ask my doctor about symptoms and the side-effects of the cures, which somehow always include the chance of death.
On the plus side, the condition of the world reported between the commercials sounds much less dire than my own.
I was thinking about this situation when reading the curses that Moses instructed the Levites to proclaim at the end of Deuteronomy 27. Half a chapter later, (and for 50+ horrifying verses), the consequences and side effects of the imprecations are spelled out. Some of the curses yet make sense in today’s world – “cursed is the person who moves his neighbor’s boundary marker.” But I have to ask what was going on in the ancient world that out of a dozen such warnings, one of them is “cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.” That is not a criticism of my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, or of your mother-in-law, may she live to 120. But seriously folks, how prevalent did this have to be to squeeze into line ahead of cheating in the marketplace, pedophilia or bullying someone into agreement? I mean, who would think to sleep with his mother-in-law?
I ask this question because of my firm belief that God did not invent sin in order to prohibit it. Pretty much from the Beginning, the “thou-shalt-nots” are reactive. Cain murders Abel, Noah’s generation is corrupt, people’s language was confused for trying to build a stairway to heaven, etc. After a while, it seems like we just dispensed with the reportage of the justification and went straight to the prohibition.
But the problem with that is the ideas it puts in the reader’s head. Like the old riff, “Whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant!”, the punishments provoke thoughts of the crimes. “Whatever you do, don’t sleep with your mother-in-law” puts a thought into my head I can’t unthink. Maybe it was God who said to include this prohibition, or just maybe we now know a little too much about the anonymous editor of the Book of Deuteronomy.
That pain in my knee may just be a twinge and my foot-tapping during a meeting may just be a little impatience, but big pharma has convinced me to speak to my doctor about wiggly-limb syndrome – perhaps a real problem for a few, but nowhere near the epidemic that the ads on the nightly news lead me to believe is sweeping the land.
To this point we have a combination of stand-up comedy and blasphemy, but let’s land somewhere in between as we reach the end.
So much of this cycle’s presidential campaign falls into the “don’t sleep with your mother-in-law” category. The hyperbolic representations of the troubles our nation faces have placed ideas in the heads of the many that have previously been the embarrassing secrets of the few. For example, domestic tranquility is the second-highest priority in the Preamble to the Constitution, but your chance of being the victim of an act of terrorism remains an infinitesimal fraction of being killed by any of the following: a legally-owned firearm, a car driven by a licensed driver, an industrial accident or a self-administered opioid overdose. Yet one candidate is willing to revoke the First Amendment for millions of Americans (not to mention spending billions of dollars to accomplish and defend it) by elevating the acts of the few to an immediate concern for every voter by in effect proclaiming, “now I’m not saying every Muslim is a terrorist...”
There are many national priorities to be debated, as always. The approach of any political party is and should be subject to scrutiny and evaluation. Public policy ought to address the real needs of the nation and its people.
But seriously people. There is more that is great about this country than not, notwithstanding baskets of deplorables and poisoned candies. Let’s just not sleep with our mothers-in-law.
I think the hardest lesson for God to learn about people was this: just because you create someone who is in your image, it doesn’t mean he or she will turn out like you. No kidding.
The whole of the Bible is God coming to terms with that truth.
And – what an irony – about the only thing that actually is reliable about being in God’s image is that parents, mentors and other authority figures have a hard time learning the same lesson. It is true on a macro level and on a micro level.
Those of us who are lucky and marry well (like me) have kids that actually turn out better, but for all we have in common with our kids, they all wind up being who they are, not who we are.
There is an exquisitely painful set of instructions for parents who raise a stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). If they reach the end of their rope, they are instructed to haul him before the elders of the city, declare his (very specific) crimes of refusing to listen to his parents and being a glutton and drunkard. And then the elders stone the son to death. The section concludes with the rationale: all of Israel will hear and be afraid.
I must say it works. My parents never (seriously) threatened to have me formally charged with being stubborn, but the first time I read this little section it stuck with me. The fifth commandment may set the expectation that I behave well toward my parents, but this scenario made it real.
Of course, it is horrifying. What parents, seriously, would take their child to be executed? How could this be true? Yet, there it is in the Holy Scripture!
The rabbinic architects of Jewish law seemed to be horrified as well. They put so many restrictions on this little section that it was impossible to act upon. An entire chapter (8) of the Talmud (Sanhedrin) is devoted to defining the eligibility of the intended victim out of existence. By the time they are finished, they conclude that this stubborn and rebellious son “never existed, never was created.” All that is left when they are finished is the rationale: all of Israel will hear and be afraid.
The fear of disappointing parents and, by extension, God is probably the most useful and the most damaging feature of religious life. (Yes, I know – not every religion has God and not every kid has religion. Still.) If we did not aspire to be the people our parents and God imagine (i.e., create an image of), we might never learn to have aspirations of our own. That’s very useful. On the other hand, I have never met anyone who did not react to some misdeed large or small by saying, “My parents are going to kill me.” They don’t mean it literally. Right?
When the expectation set by family or faith seems so clear and so non-negotiable, the child who lives in fear of divine or parental disapproval often sees little difference between life and death. And especially when the model of what constitutes living in the image in which the child was created is clearly defined, the consequences of a different path can be devastating.
I know how much attention is being paid to the choices children make about their life path. Will they follow the religious commitments of their parents? Will they subscribe to the political attitudes with which they were raised? In some families, choices of career, military service, education and even sports teams can rise to the level of expectation. Challenging those orthodoxies can tear a family apart, but more often than not there is room for compromise. No verse in the Bible requires you to root for the Cubs. Though it should.
But when there is a verse and it is layered with long-standing community norms, those matters that do not involve choice, rather identity, require preemptive attention.
Some percentage of our children understand their sexual and gender identities differently than the heterosexual and cisgender (look it up – I had to) majorities in our society. And when they confront the condemnatory verses that formed the foundation of society’s attitudes toward LGBTQ people long before those five letters held meaning, they understand that someone important believes they are as deplorable as the stubborn and rebellious son. They do not live up to the image. Perhaps they should be hauled before the elders, so that all Israel will hear and be afraid.
Listen, my friends – those of you who are parents and those of you who have ever been children. Not a one of you would pull the most stubborn and rebellious child to the public square for execution by a disapproving elite. No matter how different than your imagining that child might be, you stand with the rabbis of 2000 years ago who declared that a child worthy of such treatment “never existed, never was created.” They interpreted those verses clean out of existence.
We need to do it again. The child whose sexual identity is an abomination – that’s the word – never existed, never was created. We need to make it clear to every child in every image of every parent. And of God.
The infrastructure of our government and our civic life today bears little resemblance to what the Bible describes. The tribal chieftains whose domains made up the confederation of Israelites eventually were under the rule of various kings – at first serially and then simultaneously. The economic system presumed by the Bible was a sort of regulated free market, if such a thing is possible, and both debt and real estate sales were canceled on a cyclical basis to prevent the concentration of wealth or the emergence of a permanent underclass. Indentured servitude was common for fellow Israelites, but out and out slavery was permitted for outsiders. And let’s not start on matters of personal status, especially for women.
But there is one civic instruction in the Torah that is both unambiguous and as contemporary as the daily news. Judges and magistrates must be appointed “and they shall render just decisions for the people” (Deut. 16:18). In three short verses, these requirements are made crystal clear: appoint judges who are impartial and will not accept bribes, and pursue justice with just means.
Subsequent sections of Deuteronomy amplify those requirements and expand on legislation in other parts of the Torah. Over thousands of years, sages and scholars and students of the Bible have debated what it means to bear false witness or to be culpable for a capital crime or to claim a found object. But there has never been a challenge to the mandate to appoint judges of integrity as a condition of living in the Land.
It is usual for social justice types like me to focus on the third of those verses, specifically, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It is such a trope among activists that Rabbi (now Ambassador) David Saperstein would often caution his students (myself included) not to take the easy way out when examining policy issues by quoting this verse and then proclaiming, “Therefore, we must do such and such.”
But in this moment, it is the first mandate to which we must pay closer attention. Judges and magistrates MUST be appointed. It is the obligation of the community leadership to ensure that people of integrity are installed as officials of the judicial system. The roster of cases to be adjudicated is pretty comprehensive, as the ever-expanding body of law in any society is. But if we are to make a life in the Land – or in any land, under any form of government – then justice must be served by just justices.
There is a reason that the founders of this country insisted that the federal judiciary not be established by popular vote. Every time there is an election, it seems some other kind of impropriety or bad behavior is committed by someone connected with the campaign. Candidates are chosen on the basis of the policies they propose and the methods with which they intend to implement them – I will lower your taxes, I will pave your roads, I will protect your rights, I will build a wall. Hey, even that short list has provoked a visceral reaction inside of you that gives you more or less of a reason to trust anyone who wants your vote.
But a judge must be impartial. A judge applies the law given her or his best understanding of what the law demands. Certainly, there are judges who take a particular approach to “what the law demands.” There are those who take things literally (an eye for an eye means an actual eye), who try to determine intention (an eye for an eye means the value of an eye), who think the law has deterrent tendencies (an eye for an eye means making sure no one puts out another eye) and a hundred other kinds of approaches. But in the end, a judge must favor neither rich nor poor, wise nor foolish, influential nor powerless, friend nor stranger. Any attempt to politicize the judge, that is, to predetermine the outcome of future deliberations, is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of those who do the judicial appointing.
As I have written before, I had the genuine privilege to meet Justice Antonin Scalia a few times. He was a brilliant man, devout in his faith and possessed of a particular approach to “what the law demands.” I didn’t much like that approach, but when he was nominated by President Reagan in 1986, he was approved almost unanimously by the Senate. When he died in early 2016, it became the responsibility of the President and the Senate to replace him on the Supreme Court.
I am no different than anyone else in my preferences for the kind of approach to the law I would like to see on the bench. It is pretty clear that the judge nominated by the President – Merrick Garland – has a different approach to the law than Justice Scalia, but no less integrity. It was the President’s responsibility to put forward a nominee. It is the Senate’s responsibility to deliberate and confirm or reject the nomination. To refuse to hold the hearing is an abrogation of the responsibility to fulfill that unambiguous instruction that judges and magistrates MUST be appointed. It disables the full functioning of the highest court in the land.
A Justice delayed is justice denied.