Dear WJC Family,
I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice, and now the cause of justice is in your hands.
-Attorney General Keith Ellison after the verdict was read in the George Floyd murder trial
I was struck by this quote – so much so that I explored its meaning during our Thursday night class this week (just a reminder, everyone is welcome to join in the class at any time.) While the statement is eloquent and gripping, it also raises a number of questions: What do you mean the verdict was not justice? How can there be true restoration in a case of murder? What does it mean that justice is in our hands?
There are many Jewish texts that shed light on the subject. Several commentaries on the verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue…” (Deut. 16:20) are helpful. The Rosh explains that the first “justice” is the legal system and the second “justice” is tzedakah (from the word tzedek meaning justice). First we have to take care of the immediate case, but then we need to right the ills of society, including poverty and socio-economic challenges, that create the ongoing atmosphere for such incidents to occur. That second justice is “in our hands.”
The Orchot Tzadikim takes a different approach. He implies that the second “justice” is learning – of course with rabbis everything comes down to learning more Torah. But looked at a little more closely, there is brilliance here. Isn’t it true that to truly pursue justice we have to learn, not just Torah, but also about and from each other? To bring lasting justice into the world we first need to learn each other’s stories and share each other’s wisdom with seriousness, curiosity and respect. The commitment to learning is in our hands.
One last interpretation: Rabbeinu Bachya says the repetition is for justice in word and justice in deed; we need both. On the one hand, it is easy to talk about justice in a case as egregious as George Floyd’s murder, but do we always pursue justice with our speech, being careful with the power of our words to create and destroy? Similarly, are all of our deeds steps on the path to justice? Two steps forward and one step back is an awfully slow way to progress when lives are on the line. Making sure each of us is truly dedicated to justice in our words and our deeds, not only when it is a trendy topic, but always, that is in our hands.
I know that Attorney General Ellison was not necessarily implying all of these Torah meanings, but isn’t it telling that these medieval rabbis were looking for ways to more perfectly pursue justice just like we are? It is useful to remember that our tradition is wise beyond measure and that “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9) Our voices and the voice of our tradition are important at this moment. Justice is, indeed, in our hands.
Another area in which many of our synagogue members are actively pursuing justice is immigration and refugee resettlement. On Sunday morning at 10:00am I am honored to be engaging in a conversation with Rabbi Aaron Brusso of Mount Kisco’s Congregation Bet Torah. The program is called, “How a Synagogue Saved a Life.” Rabbi Brusso will share a brief film that tells the story of the unjust deportation of one of the synagogue’s maintenance employees, Armando, and how the community worked tirelessly for months to get him back to their community. Rabbi Brusso and I will then explore the story and how it impacted the greater shul community. We will also explore what Bet Torah is now doing on the topic and how a synagogue like WJC might get more involved. This story is proof that justice truly is in our hands.
On Saturday morning I will be speaking about this week’s verdict from a completely different perspective, based on a couple of verses in one of this week’s Torah portions, Kedoshim. First, this evening at 6:15 Cantor Goldberg will lead Kabbalat Shabbat with a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Dalton. Saturday night havdalah is at 8:30pm. It is so nice being with people in shul, even socially distanced with masks – I hope you will join us soon!