Thursday, 17 Aug 2023

Written by Dr Hannah M. Altorf

‘Now that you have been here and seen this, you cannot return to how you were,’ the American-Palestinian businessman and activist told us, a group of student rabbis from the UK and the US. We were on an extended visit to Israel. On that particular day, we had seen some of the destruction wreaked by settlers in Turmusaya, we had enjoyed lunch at a Bed & Breakfast in Jifna and now we were in a hotel in Ramallah. ‘If you go back and do as you did before, you might as well have stayed home.’ He had just told us part of his story. Born and raised in the United States, he had moved to Ramallah as a young man. He had shown us some of the many permits that he had needed since obtaining a Palestinian identity card. He had cautioned us that there was also much we would not be able to see.

‘You have to tell the world what is happening now in Israel’, said the woman we met on the beach. ‘Democracy is under attack’, said the father of three in Tel Aviv. ‘Yerucham is a wonderful place to live, people need to know that’, our guide in that southern part of the country assured us. Thus, and many more times were we asked to relate people’s stories. There were also silent witnesses. When we returned home late, we would walk past a bench, where a man was preparing for sleep. His bed was simple but immaculate: a pillow, a small matress and a sheet. Every night he made his bed on that bench and there he slept through the warm, muggy night.

In parashat va-etchannan, a few weeks ago, the people were told to ‘not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes.’ (Deuteronomy 4: 9) The Etz Chayim Chumash adds the following note to this verse: ‘Jewish fate is based primarily on experience rather than on speculative thought’, it explains and it quotes Abraham J. Heschel: ‘Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses.’ Yet, some of what I witnessed felt far from any divine presence. It felt far from the ideals that had brought the group of rabbis to Israel with whom I spent one Sunday, studying Torah.

What I saw, is only a snapshot and the above is a only selection of that. Of course, I also enjoyed a cool night after shabbat in Jerusalem and I ate delicious humus in Akko. Yet, those stories don’t have the same urgency. What is more, I also experienced how telling a story does not always seem enough. When I was speaking to new friends in Jerusalem of what I had seen, they listened and then waited in silence. When one of them finally spoke, it was obvious that he thought I should not have stopped speaking when I did. He expected me not just to witness, but also to give a judgment and then to side with one solution over another.

This is what I struggle with on my return. Reading this week’s parashah, Shoftim, I revisit the lines that have such a prominent place in our progressive traditions: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16: 20) I want to apply this quotation immediately to the political situation and demand the appropriate power for judges and justice for everyone. The parashah offers an important and inspiring ideal in which everyone, whatever their position, is ruled by justice and is given equal access to justice. Yet, this ideal seems far from the realities and deep inequalities I witnessed. Of course, I don’t have the solution. I am not even sure how judgments in this kind of writing would help. If social media have taught us anything it is that the world is not short of judgments and that these rarely bring people closer together, let alone lead us to a more just reality.

Parashat Shoftim ends with a dead body. Someone is killed but there is no culprit. Indeed, the body seems to be without relations. In response, the text introduces the puzzling ritual of the eglah arufah, the heifer whose neck is broken. (Deuteronomy 21: 1-9) The ritual has challenged interpreters. Some see the ritual as a reminder of the importance of pursuing justice while for others it distinguishes the different ways in which justice is pursued.

Maimonides offers a different response in The Guide for the Perplexed (3: XL). Even though the text in Deuteronomy does not connect the dead person to any place or person, he speculates that the murderer must come from the nearest city. Thus, first the elders need assure the people that there was no negligence on their part. The roads were in good condition. Next, Maimonides argues, their preparation for the ritual will make people talk and by talking come closer to finding the culprit and locating the guilt. Eventually, there will be justice.

One way of reading torah encourages to consider all structural elements as essential. The beginning and ending of any parashah are closely connected. At the beginning of Shoftim we are urged to pursue justice and at the end we are reminded that there should be justice even for a tree and for a dead body without relations. There is no justice unless there is justice for all. The road to justice may not always be straightforward, but that should not stop us from our pursuit. Even more important is to try and make sure that no one ever has cause to kill anyone in the first place.

The parashah thus tasks us with pursuing justice and it cautions us to take heed of the different ways such a pursuit may take. At times, it is important to judge and at others to take care of the more vulnerable, including those who cannot speak for themselves. Sometimes we need to sit with a story and at yet other times, we need to speak out and we need to speak up. As we are at the start if the month of Elul and prepare for the Yamim Noraim, may we use this time to distinguish each of these moments, to realise our responsibility for one another, sit for a while with some stories and speak up and out where needed.

l’shana tova 

Dr Hannah M. Altorf   LBC Student rabbi



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.