Friday, August 17, 2007

Balancing the Scales

I have been immersing myself in thoughts about “justice” for the past many weeks as I prepare to chant from Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion. (If you’re curious enough to go read it, it is Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9.)

It so happens that some of the very best Torah portions always fall in the summer, when only the most faithful show up for services. That’s the time at Temple Micah when the service leaders are not the rabbis, but rather just lay people from the congregation. Tomorrow my husband David and I are those lay leaders. There will be around 25 other people in attendance if this is a typical August Shabbat morning.

The first of the three sections I am chanting contains the line “justice, justice shall you pursue.” The thought of pursuing justice makes it seem like some sort of elusive quality that can never really be attained. This same section describes the establishment of a judicial system and admonishes the judges not to take bribes. Whoever wrote this (D, the Deuteronomist?) obviously understood human nature quite well.

The second section in chapter 19 describes a novel idea for those who have accidentally taken the life of another: the establishment of three cities of refuge. These would be places where the guilty person could go in safety while the friends and family of the victim cooled off. The murderer would be safe as long as he didn’t leave the confines of the city to which he had fled. This seems like such a sane way to stop the violence that all too often occurs as people take the law into their own hands.

The third section is perhaps the most controversial. It begins by requiring more than one witness to convict someone of a crime. It stipulates that the consequence for lying under oath is the very thing the person was falsely accusing another of. This is where the old “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” comes from. This is the passage that some have used to justify capital punishment. Maybe the application of this passage today would influence the recent tendency of people in high places to bend the truth.

I searched for some pearl of wisdom to offer people as they pray silently at the beginning of the service. I found these 4 quotes:

Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just. Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, and physicist, 1623-1662)

Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. Dwight David Eisenhower (American 34th President, 1890-1969)

If you want peace, work for justice. Henry Louis Mencken (American humorous journalist and critic of American life) And here I thought the Justice Department had coined this one...

Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice. Harrison Ford (American actor, b. 1942)

Do you have any thoughts on justice?


Blogger Kristin said...

I've thought quite a bit on justice lately. There aren't superheroes in tights and capes fighting the evil in the world, no Justice League. It's up to people like us. It's up to us.

Justice isn't a default and it doesn't mean getting what we want. Sometimes, it's just plain hard.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- Can I quote you on that? This is just as good as the ones I included!

12:33 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Thank you. You are more than welcome to use it.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think Plato/Socrates describe justice best in the preamble to The Republic.

I blogged about it about a little over a year and a half ago here.

Sound bite: Justice is human excellence.

Executive summary: The outcome of just actions is always excellence. If our actions do not improve people, if they do not raise and uplift causing the person to excel as a human, to be the best that they can be, then we have failed at justice.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

I'm so sorry I missed seeing you chant! I was working, but it would have been so good.

I love your quotes on justice.

Only mercy trumps justice. It is a very high frequency power, an extremely potent energy form. Justice scares me.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- I am always reminded of what an idealist you are. My guess is that you weigh the consequences of all of your actions very carefully, searching for justice in everything you do.

Reya -- I missed having you in the congregation, but I'll be happy to chant Shoftim for you anytime you wish! It's still fresh in my mind and even in my dreams.

I'm a little perplexed by why justice scares you.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

North American first peoples have a saying that before any decision is made, you must consult seven generations of ancestors and seven generations of descendants.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any thought I might have had pre-divorce (as in naively believing in the system) are now cynically thrown into the trash, I am sad to say. It appears, at least in my case, that justice is served up in the form of green: dollars to be exact. From paying the court fees, the judge, the lawyers, the paralegals, the court reporters, the mediators, the courthouse filing fees, secretaries ... emails, letters, phone calls ... and the list continues.

My apologies.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- I call the rule of seven real assurance you are doing the right thing. They were so good and we treated them with so little respect.

Red -- I'm so sorry you had to endure a legal system out of control. A lot of money seems to exchange hands in an effort to exact justice these days.

9:47 AM  

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