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Shoftim, Justice and Peace

We live in a world where people often scream about injustice, but rarely take action to correct such failings. The injustices we most often speak about are those that involve people closest to us. We complain about this friend or that. We criticize this family member or another. Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on justice. In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, it contains the famous verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

We hear this call for justice, but too often we misapply its message to friends and family. Instead we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society. Our country faces many problems. There is a growing inequity between rich and poor. We continue to witness simmering racial tensions explode into view. On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry. The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year! There are still far too many without adequate jobs. We must create more employment opportunities. These are but a few examples of the many challenges our society faces. We need to work to repair the many problems in our broken society.

This is the Torah’s demand. We must pursue justice for the sake of our country and our community. But rather than working to fix these problems we level the charge of injustice against family members and friends. With regard to those closest to us we are instead commanded to pursue peace. Hillel said: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.” (Avot 1:12) According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making. Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God. Aaron was left in charge. He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task. Instead he appears to have helped them. Aaron facilitated the building of the calf. The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh.

The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making. Their suggestion is extraordinary. Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to be like the disciples of Aaron, and make peace. Thus when it comes to family shalom, peace, is the greatest virtue. When it comes to the larger society the greatest value is tzedek, justice. We often confuse which value is to lead the way.

Pursue justice for the society at large. Pursue peace for family and friends. As the High Holidays approach I pledge to seek justice for our society, and make peace among family and friends.