Parashat Matot-Masei 5783
Delivered July 14, 2023
When talking with someone for the first time in social situations, they often ask me what drew me to the rabbinate. I always appreciate the question, since the rabbinate is such a sacred and strange profession.
I typically answer by telling about my upbringing. My family was active in our reform synagogue, I attended Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps, and I was involved in NFTY and Hillel. My family valued Jewish community, and I--personally--was drawn to it. I also benefited from wonderful mentorships with my childhood rabbis. The more I hung out around them, the more I realized what the rabbinate involved: the teaching and leading of prayer, communal leadership, storytelling with children, and the chance to write and share ideas publicly. Being a rabbi is a field for a generalist, and I found that alluring. That magnetism concretized my desire to enter the rabbinate.
Ask many of my colleagues what drew them to serve the Jewish community, many will tell you a similar story. I know that for Rabbi Gordon and Rabbi Liz Hirsch, that is the case. Yet, this does not track for all rabbis. Some enter the rabbinate because of the draw of Jewish academics, others because of a calling they felt during their conversion process. The reasons people become rabbis are varied. But the relational aspect--having a good mentor to show you want the calling entails--is a thru-line of many rabbis serving the Jewish community today.
There is another reason the rabbinate drew me in, and more broadly, what keeps me connected to the Jewish community overall. That reason is the Jewish community’s moral compass that bends toward social justice. My family, day school teachers, camp counselors, and other Jewish leaders regularly communicated a Jewish understanding of right and wrong that always resonated.
Our textual tradition is where we first hear this shofar blast.
When Abraham learns what God intends with Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God to preserve the lives of righteous individuals in those cities. God even wonders in a soliloquy, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do... For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Eternal by doing what is just and right”.1 God calls us to do acts of tzedakah and mishpat. God wants us to be just and righteous. Amos echoes this: “Let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”2 The prophet Micah picks up the mantle, shifting it toward kindness and love: “He has told you, O man, what is good, / And what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice / And to love kindness, / And to walk modestly with your God.”3
In rabbinical school, we take courses on Biblical prophets. Once, one of my classmates asked our professor, Rabbi David Sperling, if the prophets intended for us to read the social justice messages as strongly as we do today. Were the prophets honestly concerned with justice, or was that something we layered over them? Rabbi Sperling was not one for eisegesis, the way academics describe how we impose our subjective, contemporary perspectives on the text. Regarding social justice in the prophets, the professor paused momentarily, speaking carefully. “In this instance,” he said, “we are on firm ground. The prophets were concerned about improving the lives of the vulnerable around them, and bringing their community members back into service with God.”
Over the years, I have heard from congregants that Reform Judaism’s dedication to social justice keeps them in the synagogue. Their spirituality and sense of right and wrong are bound up with one another, and they seek a community that celebrates that connection. Standing on this bima, b’nai mitzvah parents often encourage their students to remember the value of tikkun olam, along with the other Jewish commitments they make as they come of age.
I also hear from some that they feel that Reform rabbis have become too justice focused. Or that we do not center the voices of the politically conservative. In his nationwide study of religion in America, Sociologist Robert Putnam found that people today are more likely to change their congregations--or leave them all together--than to change their political perspectives.
Rabbis must take that critique seriously, though not show timidity when tackling complex topics. That is because you--as congregants--are smart people, and you give us a sacred trust to bring thoughtful readings of the Jewish tradition that can speak into your lives. For these words to have integrity, I know that the Jewish textual tradition has to come first; the personal opinions are informed by that.
So other than reciting aphorisms like “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,”4 what is Jewish justice? Defining what it is might help us better understand the role the pursuit of justice plays for each of us, spiritually.
At its core, pursuing social justice is an act of care. Again, Micah is the one who makes this point: “Only to do justice / And to love goodness.” Mishpat (justice) and Chesed (goodness) go hand and hand. Suppose we want to say that we are a community that cares and is on firm moral ground doing so. In that case, we “must... adequately provide care for [our] members and territory,” as philosopher Joan Tronto writes in her book Moral Boundaries. Social justice emerges when we set policies within our communities and beyond that care for the most vulnerable.
Tronto, who advocates for an ethic of care, as an expression of justice, describes four elements we can use to measure if something is caring. These are (1) attentiveness, (2) responsibility, (3) competence, and (4) responsiveness. We first recognize “the needs of those around us,”5 which Tronto tells us is indeed a moral achievement in and of itself. We do not turn away from the person panhandling, the relative who has fallen on hard times, or the child struggling in school. After we recognize those needs, we accept the responsibility to care. Here, I would remind us that we are not only responsible for caring but caring is an obligation. "Love your fellow as yourself," we say.6 Moreover, the care we provide--whether by ourselves or with the help of others--has to be competent. For the care we give to be moral, it needs to be quality, and it needs to be responsive. Too little too late is not just.
These four measures of care--(1) attentiveness, (2) responsibility, (3) competence, and (4) responsiveness--are together a yardstick to decide if we are meeting the mark in our pursuit of justice. Are we being attentive to the needs of others? Are we accepting our responsibilities? Are we providing competent and timely care to those who need it?
I like this list. We can apply it to examples in our lives in which we care for those we love. We can also use these questions in reading Jewish tradition.
In this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, we have a passage that goes into the laws and functions of asylum cities, sometimes called cities of refuge. When the Israelites settle the land, they are to establish six asylum cities throughout their territories. The cities are designated to protect the life of an accidental murderer. Suppose one were to bring about another’s death. In that case, the one who accidentally committed the murder is to run to one of these cities, in which a blood avenger cannot pursue him.
The laws of the asylum cities are fascinating. They recognize that accidents do happen and that we have the instinct to avenge the unjustified death of a loved one, and this law shows us that vengeance does not end well for anyone in society. It is a guardrail against a devolution that would come with exacting revenge for every accidental homicide in a community. “Vengeance can lead to horrible excesses and still fail to restore what was destroyed initially,” teaches legal scholar Martha Minow.7
So let’s consider the asylum city in light of the four measures of care. Providing asylum is attentive to the needs of the one being pursued. In setting them up, society recognizes a responsibility to maintain peace and dignity among its members. Giving these sanctuary cities to those in need can fully satisfy these vulnerable people’s needs. And it gives them the attention they need when it is required. Under this test, it would seem that asylum cities are expressions of moral caring, and a legitimate expression of justice embedded within Jewish tradition.
Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that expresses care for everyone who finds themselves within our society’s borders. That is tzedek as chesed. That is justice. That is a community I strive to live in.
I went into the rabbinate because of strong mentors. I stay in it because of the sacred work we do together, to make our community as strong as possible, and to aim to always do what is just and right for each of us. And then, to take that same energy and see how we can create ripple effects, where the care we give spreads out beyond the borders of this sanctuary and into the lives of those for whom we attend.
May we continue to leave our world a touch more whole than the day before, simply because we care.
1: Genesis 18:19.
2: Amos 5:24.
3: Micah 6:8.
4: Deuteronomy 16:20.
5: Tronto, 127.
6: Leviticus 19:18.
7: Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, 11.