August 28, 2003
Where You Stand
Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
We are standing before God and God is standing before us -- especially during this particular time, when certain fundamental liberties are being denied individuals and when justice is being withheld from specific groups -- all in the name of "homeland security." This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, comes to teach us -- all of us without exception -- that we are obligated to build a just society not only for ourselves but for all people.
Thus, our reading, studying and thinking about the essential lessons found in Shoftim are of great importance right now.
Meanwhile, this parsha reminds me of a very strange personal experience that occurred many years ago. It's one that I'll never forget.
While I was away from University Synagogue one afternoon, visiting a hospitalized congregant, a very well-known Catholic priest called me. When he realized that I wasn't there, he left a message on my voice mail asking that I contact him as soon as possible, because a situation required an immediate collaborative interfaith response.
For reasons that I can't technologically explain -- but it may have been God's handiwork -- something extraordinary happened: Although my caller terminated his call, my message device recorded what happened next.
Once he hung up, he telephoned a prominent rabbinic colleague of mine. During their ensuing conversation, the non-Jewish leader indicated that he had tried to reach me, found that I was away from my desk, left a message asking that I contact him without delay and he said that he was certain that he'd hear from me as soon as I learned that he had reached out to me.
In turn, the rabbi expressed his doubts about my dependability and without hesitation he conveyed his feelings of disdain toward me by using that occasion to utter some very derogatory comments.
These unflattering remarks were instantly rebuffed by the priest, but they lingered in the air nevertheless.
Naturally, when I listened to their recorded discussion, I was deeply hurt and terribly confused because I couldn't recall any incident that would have inflamed the rabbi's emotions and cemented his negative opinions about me. And throughout the years we have worked together in the community, he had never led me to believe that we were anything but the best of friends.
A few days later, he and I happened to see one another at a public gathering where he greeted me with a bright smile, open arms and some affectionate remark.
"Oh," I thought to myself, "if he only knew that I was aware of his genuine feelings about me, which make this display of supposed fondness reek of hypocrisy."
As a result of a mechanical error -- or did God provide me with an opportunity to hear words that would never have been uttered in my presence by someone who posed as a friend? -- I had a chance to encounter the authentic nature of a relationship instead depending on some false pretense.
Now, what has all of this to do with our reading five particular chapters found in the Book of Deuteronomy this Shabbat?
Within Shoftim, we are instructed: "Zedek, zedek tirdof" ("justice, justice shall you pursue").
When we dig deeply into the parsha, we come to realize that not only are sacred and secular laws to be faultlessly carried out by government officials and interpreted by appointed and elected judges -- all of them are expected to be unrelentingly fair and impartial -- but you and I are instructed to treat everyone we encounter in our own lives in a similar fashion.
You see, it is not only justice that keeps chaos away and society afloat, but it is steadfast righteousness that should be ever-present in every interpersonal relationship we have -- be it a casual contact or one which is intimate and enduring .
This is why Rashi taught: "Consider what you do and conduct yourself in every judgment as if the Holy One, Blessed be He, were standing before you."
Had the rabbi known that I would hear his candid opinion of me, or had he imagined that God was standing in front of him when he spoke in such a hateful way about me in one instance, and then so lovingly in my presence very soon thereafter, to what extent would he had been anxious to render harsh judgment?
And, that prompts me to ask: Do any of us have the right to be judgmental? Maimonides didn't think so, because he observed that all of us are obligated (actually, he wrote: "commanded") to give each person the benefit of the doubt.
So, as we demand that ours must always be a "just society," and when we attempt to individually "pursue justice," it is necessary that we also rely upon that same concept to temper our own words and actions.
Much will be accomplished individually and collectively when we remember this lesson at all times, because we do stand before God and God stands before us. Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for injustice in any of its many forms -- be it in our society at large or in the way we relate to one another.
Allen I. Freehling served as University Synagogue's senior rabbi for 30 years before becoming that congregation's first rabbi emeritus a year ago. He is now serving as the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Los Angeles.