Parashat Shoftim 5777

Rabbi Richard Jacobi, 25 August 2017

This time last year, a 19-year-old Syrian woman swam at the Rio Olympic Games, competing under the Olympic flag as part of the Refugee team. A year before that, Yusra Mardini pushed a sinking dinghy filled with refugees through the frigid Aegean Sea for over three hours. She and her sister saved their own lives and the lives of eighteen others crammed into a dinghy designed to accommodate six people.

Fifteen months ago – is it only fifteen months – I accompanied my father and Lord Alf Dubs to the Jungle at Calais, before it was demolished last October. The horribly sad reality is that the demolition took away a focal point for refugees and media, and also removed a means of safeguarding unaccompanied and vulnerable children. Tens of thousands of children are now more spread out and at greater risk of exploitation and cruelty than a year ago.

This time, this year, we are seeing the moral vacuum being enlarged by an American President whose views and statements regarding the events at Charlottesville last Saturday (12th August), after far-right white supremacists gathered for a rally. Donald Trump’s suggestions of guilt on all sides sought to infer an equivalence between the views of the white supremacists and those who participated in the counter-demonstrations.

Such moral equivocation was to be prevented in biblical times by the independence of the appointed judiciary established in the chapters of this week’s parasha, Shoftim, meaning magistrates or judges. Such people are to be appointed by the community and are to be given sufficient independence to ensure that justice is impartial – reiterating the teachings from Leviticus that neither the poor nor the rich should be shown any partiality. While we could read through chapter and verse of the parasha and find many archaic rules and laws, there is no doubt in my mind that the codes were seeking to establish a society that would be among the more developed of its era. Why else would certain categories of soldier be sent home from the field of battle, weakening the army’s numbers, but reinforcing the societal values being upheld by the army? Why else would cities of refuge be established to prevent vigilante action? Why else are we taught, in chapter 16 verse 20, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – “justice, justice shall you pursue”? This aspiration, I hope, still guides the people of this country and all Jews who read this parasha on Shabbat.

Justice has to be sought at all times, but the means of pursuing it must also be morally sound – just a few chapters earlier we read that we must “do what is right and good in the sight of the Eternal One” (Deut. 6:18). Donald Trump might claim to be God-fearing, but I feel he needs to take a long hard look at himself and consider what God would find “right and good.” Meantime, lest we succumb to any smugness about what is going on the other side of the ‘Big Pond’, we would do well to remember that our government has stalled on its commitments to saving unaccompanied child refugees, is perpetrating nasty assessments on adults with disabilities who are unable to work, and that several European countries have neo-Nazi parties in strong positions politically. Charlottesville, the Aegean Sea, Westminster – all these places need reminders that we all need to pursue justice and do “what is both right and good”.
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