Justice you shall pursue

Religion, October 2010

By Rabbi David M. Sofian, Temple Israel

Rabbi David M. Sofian

We’re all familiar with the story of the ant and the grasshopper. Given the economic realities of the last couple of years, you may have asked yourself, “Am I an ant or a grasshopper?”

The fun-loving grasshopper plays all summer while life is easy. Then he has nothing to eat come the bitterness of winter when life can be difficult. The ant works long hours during the summer, abstaining from play so he’ll be well-fixed come winter time.

I’m not sure about the original source of that story, yet I do know that the rabbis of the Talmud had their own version. The moral they wanted to draw wasn’t simply one about the value of preparation and work. Their version is found in a collection of their teachings called Midrash Rabbah to the book of Deuteronomy.

They begin with a verse found in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant; consider her ways, and be wise; which have no chief, no overseer, or no ruler, she provides herself bread in the summer, and gathers for herself food in the harvest.”

Jewish tradition tells us that King Solomon is the author of Proverbs, so the rabbis began to wonder what drew Solomon, the great and powerful king, to take a lesson from that lowly, little, insignificant ant.

Here is what they said: “The ant lives only six months and during the ant’s lifetime eats only a grain and a half of wheat. Yet, throughout its life the ant continues to gather grain after grain of food. Why? Because the ant thinks to herself, perhaps God will grant me more life and then I will be prepared with enough food.”

Our rabbis valued the ant’s sense of preparation and work ethic but they took this opportunity to emphasize something even more important.

They saw in their story an analogy to the way humans should live. The ant gathers more food than is necessary in preparation for an uncertain but nevertheless possible future. So too, we can and should prepare for an uncertain but nevertheless possible future.

The lesson here is that we are meant to gather our mitzvot (fulfill our religious commitments) in this world in readiness for the possibility of life in the world to come.

Most of us are familiar with the Hebrew word tzedakah, which all too often is translated as charity but is better translated as righteousness. It also can be translated as justice.

Our ant story reinforces the Jewish idea that God’s purpose for creating us is to perform mitzvot which especially include deeds of tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and justice.

We are meant, from our very moment of creation, to be preoccupied with mitzvot, just as the lowly ant is preoccupied with gathering seeds of grain.

The book of Deuteronomy puts it this way: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’maan tiyeh, Justice, it is justice that you shall pursue, so that you may live.”

If we are to live and thereby fulfill our relationship with God, if we are to live and fulfill God’s purpose for us, we must pursue justice.

We need to know what justice means for us. Normally, we think of justice as giving someone his or her due in life, making sure they get what they deserve. That is a worthy goal but in Jewish tradition it’s not enough.

Our understanding of justice must begin with the concept that every person is made in the image of God. We are taught that each of us possesses a divine spark at the very core of our being. Each of us is special and sacred. Each of us is of infinite worth.

With this in mind, we can talk about justice. The equality of human beings, the requirement to be fair in all our dealings is not just a worthy goal; it is an absolute right stemming from our common creation in the image of God.

Justice is, at its core, the deep respect we must have for others due to their and our common creaturehood by God.

But we are not done. Justice isn’t merely a quality in our relationships between persons but also between ourselves and God. Justice is akin to holiness. The great literary prophet Isaiah put it this way, “The holy God is sanctified by justice.”

Still, we don’t have the entire picture. We believe justice walks hand in hand with mercy.

Justice isn’t merely the execution of fair treatment but the merciful execution of fairness.

Let me tell you what motivated me to write about justice. I’ve already shared this message with my congregation at Rosh Hashanah. For the last year and a half, members of our Jewish community have been deeply involved with a new interfaith organization whose goal is to promote the work of social justice in our community.

It is called LIFT Greater Dayton. It is about Jews, Christians, and Muslims finding ways to advocate together with the goal of positive social change, improving our community, Greater Dayton.

We live in a time in which differences are too frequently negatively emphasized to the detriment of all. Does this mean the various congregations and communities that make up LIFT paper over their differences? Do we agree on everything? Of course we are different and do not agree on everything. I hope each participant is as proud of who he or she is as I am proud of being a Jew.

But here is the key: our common humanity that binds us together is every bit as important as what separates us. Even as there is one God, there is also at its root one human family. We must reflect that basic unity in our behavior and strivings as Jews.

LIFT brings people together to form relationships. Once these relationships are established through real listening to one another, agreement on a common agenda of concern and action arises.

After more than 1,000 such conversations, a clear agenda did emerge. Nothing is more on Daytonians’ minds than jobs, followed closely by concerns about education and youths.

LIFT is now determining how we can best try to influence Greater Dayton for the better on these issues. Whatever the specifics turn out to be, the greatest significance is that we work on it together. It is hard to ignore injustice happening to people you know and work with.

If this idea excites you, mark Sunday, Oct. 10 at 3 p.m. on your calendar. This is when community organizations will come together at Temple Israel to officially found LIFT. We hope perhaps 800 people from at least 40 different organizations will be here. Experience first-hand the electricity and excitement of differing faith communities coming together in shared purpose.

Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live. Justice touched by mercy. Justice touched by mercy producing holiness in our lives.

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