Today is our last Shabbat in this building that has served us well over the past 14 years. I had my son Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah here almost 14 years ago and Cheryl and I had our Aufruf and wedding dinner here almost 7 years ago. Here is where Dr. Allen Rosenthal’s spirit is most manifest and where I have been able to grow as a rabbi unencumbered. So it’s sad leaving here, but sweet at the same time. It’s also just in time because I hear from our landlord that he has plans for this building this year that might not have included us. So this is our last Shabbos here. The Torah portion is Shoftim (Judges) and I hope you won’t judge my last sermon here too harshly because I have otherwise preoccupied this week.
Shoftim is always read on the 1st Shabbos of the month of Elul—the month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s a time when we contemplate new beginnings and the connection for us is obvious.
The pursuit of justice is crucial for any society. The Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20) expresses it this way: Tzedek, tzedk tirdof (justice, justice thou shall pursue). The Torah is telling us not only to seek justice, but to pursue it. One would think that the pursuit of justice is the main goal. So why not double the word “pursue” rather than the word “justice”? And what does the doubling of “justice” actually mean?
Remember veteran news reporter David Brinkley? He was a Washington correspondent in 1992 before he became and anchorman and reported a very interesting event. Let me read it to you:
Washington, DC derives a great portion of revenue from traffic tickets. In fact, $50 million a year is raised from tickets for moving violations, expired inspection stickers, overdue registrations and of course the inescapable plethora of expired parking meters.
A traffic officer was on a Washington curb writing a ticket for an illegally parked car. As he was writing the ticket, a thief had the audacity to come by with a screwdriver and steal the car's license plate.
The officer did not stop him. He just waited until he finished. Then he gave the car another ticket for parking on a public street with no plates.
Sometimes justice is overwhelmed by the pursuit of it. In doubling the word “justice” the Torah is telling us what type of justice to pursue: not just plain justice but a just justice!
It is said that during the 1930s, when the saintly Rabbi Yisroel Meir haCohen of Radin, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, was in his 90s, he wanted to spend his last years in Israel. However, he was unable to obtain a Polish passport because the Polish government required him to produce either an official birth certificate—which was impossible because the little shtetl (Jewish town) where he was born never issued such certificates—or he could bring forward 2 witnesses who were there at his birth! The Torah tells us to be vigilant in the pursuit of justice, but it also tells us to be just in its pursuit as well!
Let me share with you a story about the very colorful New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for whom the famous New York airport is named:
Not many people knew that Fiorello LaGuardia was Jewish. His mother was Irene Coen. Yet like many of his generation, he chose not to wear his Jewish heritage on his sleeve. In fact, he allowed the public to identify him as Italian. When issues of Jewish interest came up in New York or national politics, however, the “Little Flower” was an ardent advocate for Jewish rights. As New York’s mayor, he was one of Hitler’s most outspoken opponents. In his day, he was popular for riding in fire trucks with firefighters, joining police officers on their beats and taking orphaned children to baseball games.
One icy, bone chilling night in January, 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, Mayor LaGuardia arrived at a night court in one of the poorest areas in the city. He told the judge to take the night off and he presided over the court.
A short time later, an old woman dressed in threadbare clothing stood before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. “Did you steal the bread?” he asked. She admitted she had, and explained that her son-in-law had run out on his family, her daughter was sick, and her 2 grandchildren had nothing to eat. They would have died from starvation if she had not shoplifted.
Turning to the shopkeeper, LaGuardia asked if he really wanted to press charges, considering the circumstances. The shopkeeper felt sorry for the woman but told the mayor that this woman needed to be punished as an example to others. Mayor LaGuardia had a dilemma. By law, the woman was guilty and would have to be punished. However, given her reason for committing the crime, punishing her would also be an injustice.
The text-book penalty for shoplifting was $10 or 10 days in jail. If you had been the judge, what would you have done? LaGuardia fined the woman $10. “Justice is justice,” he proclaimed. A thief must be fined.
Then he did something which stunned the courthouse: LaGuardia took a $10 bill from his wallet and gave it to the woman to pay her fine. Then he looked around the crowded, bustling court room and fined everyone there 50 cents for living in a city in which a grandmother had to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. He directed the bailiff to collect the fines and hand the money to the defendant. The total collected came to $47.50, including the 50 cents willingly paid by the shopkeeper. The poor woman was overwhelmed by the gift. After everyone present had paid the fine, they rose to give LaGuardia a standing ovation.
Don’t you just love that story? Mayor LaGuardia taught us a lesson that justice is, and must be, impersonal—treating everyone equally before the law. But there’s another level that is no less important. The word tzedek (justice) also means “righteous.” The Torah doubles up and tells us Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice thou shall pursue), meaning one should pursue a just justice, a righteous justice so a grandmother doesn’t have to watch her grandchildren starve.
One can live his/her life within the confines of secular and Jewish law by following every law to the letter. However, that’s not enough, the Torah teaches. Yes, one must be just; but one must also be righteous. And part of being righteous is being forgiving. There may be someone we are close to who has hurt us. We may be filled with righteous indignation for the unjust way we were treated. But if the party that wronged us asks for our forgiveness, be righteous and accept that apology and forgive.
This is the month of Elul. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let’s remember that Gd will not forgive us from above until and unless we forgive each other below. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis