Adrian A. Durlester

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Balak 5771
Imperfect Justice is No Excuse

It's a well-worn path, but one worth re-treading. These ever so famous words of the prophet Micah which appear in this week's haftarah:

He (sic) has told you, O man, what is good, And what the L"rd requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness And to walk modestly with your G"d (JPS, Micah 6:8)

Modern liberal Jews, and in particular, reform Jews, like to claim the prophets as one of the main underpinnings of their theologies (if you can call them that.) In the prophets you can find all sorts of repudiations and denouncements of the Temple cult and sacrificial rites. Placed in their context, these words of the Prophet Micah are at the tail end of such a repudiation. Micah states it bluntly:

Would the L"rd be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born form my transgression, The fruit of my body for my sins? (JPS, Micah 6:7)

Micah's answer clearly is "no." G"d does not want our sacrifices, but for us to "do the right things."

It's a very freeing idea. Animal sacrifices and cultic rituals have long since lost their appeal, except to a select few. Yet the freedom and reinterpretation that Micah's word give us is a double-edged sword.

It is far to easy to believe that passive application of these principles is adequate. Forgive me for for using an illustration from the last musing I wrote on this topic but I do not believe we are following Micah's advice when we walk past beggars on the street smug in the knowledge that we give plenty of money to charity already. Sure, writing a check or clicking on a website takes some effort, however it is still a fairly passive activity.

Writing a check isn't good enough. We need to practice "righting a check."

Micah does not say "be just, be loving of goodness, and be humble walking with G"d. Micah so "DO" justice, "LOVE" goodness, and "WALK HUMBLY." These are simply things one cannot do passively.

Of the three, some say the "walking humbly" part is the hardest. I disagree, and actually believe it is the easiest. While humility is not a dominant human characteristic, with practice it can become normative. If you have some concept of a deity, higher power, force that is in the universe, or some such theological construct, it becomes even easier, because without a doubt, that deity/power/force is bigger than you alone. Nothing is more capable of producing humility than the awareness of something greater than yourself. Walking humbly with the G"d of your understanding requires something on your part. Guess what it is? Sacrifice! You have to sacrifice your pride, your ego, your insistence that the universe always work the way you want it to work.

How does one "love" goodness? Again, remembering that this is meant to be an active, and not passive kind of love, there are many ways to do so. What makes a love not passive? Ah, herein lies the catch. What really makes "love" active is... sacrifice! You can demonstrate your love of things good, and of the good things that others do through the act of personal sacrifice. It could be as simple as writing a check or making a donation. It could be an act that recognizes the goodness of another's efforts. It could be stopping what you are doing in order to aid someone else in doing goodness. All of these things require some form of sacrifice on your part.

And so we come to "doing justice." I do think it is the hardest. This one can never be even the least bit passive. Not doing can be passive, but doing? I think not. So how do we do justice? Well, you can guess where I'm going again. It's going to take...sacrifice. It means giving up preconceptions, pre-judgments, prejudice, bigotry. This is truly not easy in our modern society. Witness all the stories where the public and the media rush to quick judgments, and bounce back and force between viewpoints. The Frenchman and the maid. The mother and the dead child. The congressperson and Twitter. Amidst the media hype and sensationalizing, the constant chatter on Twitter and Facebook, where is the "doing justice." Justice does not mean you get your opinion of what the situation was validated. It means giving up, as much as is possible, your biases, and seeking only justice. It also means taking action: walking picket lines, being a freedom rider, writing letter to a politician, boycotting a product you really like, manning a phone bank, doing your jury duty instead of always finding some way to angle out of it. You want justice, you have to help it happen.

In western religious texts, including our own, we read a lot about G"d as meting out justice. In reality, the task is ours. Micah, among others, figured out early on the logical extension of the idea that "G"d helps those who help themselves." If G"d does indeed mete out justice, it is on G"d's own term and times, and more likely to occur in olam haba or the messianic age. If we want justice here on earth, in our own time, we must make it happen. We must do justice.

There is yet another catch. Justice may not be perfect, ever. Even G"d's justice may not be perfect (or, if you prefer the Jobist viewpoint, not perfect within out ability to understand and apprehend it.) Some innocents will go free, some guilty will be imprisoned, or even killed. (Let us hope that we recognize how this imperfection is a clarion call to avoid capital punishment, at least IMHO.) Some good will die young and some bad will live and prosper. Some works will be praised and other works will go unrecognized.

We cannot, however, use this imperfection in justice as an excuse to be inactive, or passive. This is the greatest sacrifice of all. Despite the fact that our efforts may not always yield just results, we must, day in and day out, do our best to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with the G"d of our understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous Musings on this parasha


Balak 5770 - Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam



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