Image: Four Ancient Egyptian Gods. (PublicDomainPictures/pixabay)
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!”
it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim,
One of the traditional ways to study a line of Torah is to look at what precedes and what follows the verse. There are many different kinds of Biblical context, but one of them is the physical context on the scroll.
In this case, the follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
(I can hear some practical soul among you saying, “Rabbi, there’s no connection. The Bible is full of non sequiturs!” That’s absolutely true. The text is full of them. However, it is part of traditional interpretation to see if we can make a connection, if by looking at the apparently unconnected neighbor of a line, we can gain insight on it. I find that it is a great way to shake up my thinking about a verse.)
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelite, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El,
was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles. That’s the reason we have so many repetitions of that particular commandment.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time. Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
On August 11 and 12, 2017, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel a way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it wa time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed
by someone who felt he was defending the statue?
Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.
I want to take it one step further: any time we decide we’re going to pursue justice, we need to worry about idolatry. I’m certain that every one of the pro-statue group marching in Charlottesville would have told you that their cause was just. And yet it was anything but just: it put a piece of metal
ahead of human life! Their cause privileges some lives above others: white lives above black lives, or Jewish lives, or immigrant lives. (If you think this is an exaggeration, take a look at the slogans and symbols from that march
Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where Other People are Messing Up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “whom do I worship on Shabbat,” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work, honestly?
If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life? About which issues do I say, hey, it’s not worth it?
We are in the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days. One very good way to spend Elul is to take some time to think quietly about the gods we worship. Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who will say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else.
The Christian theologian Paul Tillich
wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.” We all have one, something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
To be a Rodef Tzedek, a pursuer of justice, we must know exactly whose justice we are pursuing. This takes brave and bold honesty, a willingness to know ourselves.
This Elul, let’s ask ourselves, “What or whom concerns me above all else?” The answer will be found not in our words, but in our deeds. It’s there in our budgets. It’s there in our priorities. It’s there in our choices about what to do with our time and our energy.
Then and only then, with that self-knowledge firmly in hand, can we be sure that the justice we pursue is the justice of which the Torah speaks.