Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

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HUMAN JUSTICE AND THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

And these are the rules which you will place before them…”

The basic rule of reading the Bible is: every word counts.

When we look at the beginning of the law code (Exodus 21 through 23) that follows the Ten Commandments, the first word, “and”, is already puzzling. (Actually, in the original Hebrew, it is a prefix, not a word. Why begin a chapter with “and”? Didn’t the author of the Bible get through freshman composition?

A good question elicits an answer. A really good question elicits multiple answers, each one opening to further vistas of meditation. Here, we have a really good question.

Of the several answers offered by the classic Jewish Bible commentators, I will present two, the answers given by Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) and by Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban). Each of these answers prompts us to think about the relationship between the institutions of justice and our ultimate relationship with God.

Whenever the text says “and these”, it supplements
what came before it. Here it implies that, just as the
Ten Commandments were given from Sinai, so were
these. Why do these rules immediately follow the
rules about the altar? To tell you that you must
set up a High Court in the Temple. (Rashi to Exodus 21:1)

The interpretation of Rashi contains two powerful insights. First, God’s will for us is not only a matter of generalities. It is easy to say that, desiring us to live the best lives possible, God tells us not to murder, not to steal, etc. There is a strong current of thought, running through several faith systems, that the ethical generalities of the Ten Commandments are what God “truly” wants. But Judaism insists that God is in the details, especially the details of how we go about creating a just society. The particulars of law are important, not only the generalities. Although the technicalities can be daunting, the Jew insists that law is the tool for achieving justice, and justice is the hallmark of claiming our citizenship in God’s country. We don’t get it exactly right, because to be human is to err, to fail to know everything, and so on; but that is the channel by which we can rise.

Rashi’s second insight is that the High Court is connected to the Temple. That is not true in the United States, of course, because we have a separation of Church and State. But the Sinai covenant was for the Israelites. It was meant to teach them to erect their own just society in their homeland. In such a society, the institutions of religion and those of justice are meant to be in a symbiotic relationship. The holiness of the Temple is intended to preserve the scrupulous search for God’s will in the course of rendering judgments. It works in the other direction, as well—the demands of seeking justice are intended to prevent religious ritual from slipping into socially uncaring ritual formalism. That is why the prophets, such as Amos, were so incensed at the sight of priests officiating without concern for the injustice done to the poor.

Rashi’s comment highlights the public side of the connection between the institutions of the Court and of the Religion. But there is another way to understand the puzzling “and” of the beginning of the lawcode. Ramban explores a psychological dimension:

“And these are the rules—Just as Exodus 20:19
[the beginning of the previous paragraph, i.e. the
one immediately following the Ten Commandments]
expanded on the first commandment and 20:20 on
the second, these rules expand on the [tenth]
commandment, [the commandment] not to covet.

The tenth commandment differs from the others in its inwardness. Don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t commit perjury—these involve actions. But don’t covet is addressed to the whole person. You can restrain yourself from acting on a covetous impulse, and be clear with respect to the other commandments, and yet stand guilty with respect to this one. No earthly court will punish you, but your soul will be sick. As the Sephardic rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda expressed it, this is a “duty of the heart, not a duty of the limbs.”

Why does God give us the tenth commandment? Because Divine Law goes beyond earthly law in its attempt to help us develop good character.

Ramban’s comment reminds us that all the laws, however institutionalized they feel, are meant to be the inward, inter-personal expression of the refinement of the human character. As for laws that don’t live up to that religious goal—we believe that they are not the will of God, and stand in need of reform. But in general, Judaism takes the laws of the Bible as the starting point for our quest to make real God’s ideals for us: to live in a society distinguished by mutual respect, by peace, and by truth.

Alas, how far we have to go, even now, to achieve this lofty vision!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz