When I was a kid, I was a very important person in shul. My dad was not at all prominent in the greater society — he merely worked for his brother, selling toys and stationery as a wholesaler in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, starting his workday at 7 a.m. and working through 7 p.m. every day, including Sunday. (Sabbath-observant, he got to leave midafternoon on Fridays.) But at shul, he was well liked, even loved, and was the vice president of the local Young Israel. He was very important there, and I got treated great.
Then he died — cut down by leukemia at age 45. At his funeral, everyone from shul attended and promised to love our family, to remain close. In time, though, the bonds loosened. There were fewer visits on Shabbat to our home; fewer invitations to others’ homes. And then it happened. One Shabbat, amid 20 talking boys, I was singled out to be chastised — to be quiet. That had never before happened to me.
Never when dad was alive. I suddenly learned that, if some kid had to be made an example, had to be chastised for the noise, it was best to sanction the orphans. Kids with living fathers were protected. Their dads paid dues.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we are warned so clearly to enact justice fairly: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — Pursue justice in heated pursuit. Do not pervert judgment. Do not play favorites in judgment by recognizing certain faces over others. Do not take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of even the wisest judges and pervert the integrity of the words of even the most righteous people. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).
For many of us, these Torah mandates seem pretty easy to align with — forbidding bribery, requiring unperverted justice, commanding strict fairness in court. But howzabout us, in everyday life? Do we play by these rules?
When we meet someone wealthy, alongside someone of humble means, do we accord dignity to the modest as the rich guy pushes ahead of him? The modest man is telling of his daughter’s tragedy, her victimization at the hands of a man who has harassed her out of her Jewish religious faith and practice, but suddenly the rich guy pushes in to tell a joke. Who among us dares to say: “Excuse me, we were just speaking about this man’s — and his daughter’s — tragedy.”
Tevye sings it because we know it: “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know.”
That indeed is what they think.
It is easy to overlook the orphan, the widow — or, in today’s society, the divorced and the young single in her 40s — because, well, they don’t fit into the “model of success.” If we hang around them, we might catch whatever they are carrying. In time, if not immunized, we might be renting a condo instead of owning a house.
Do we hear them? When they ask our help to find a match for life? When they ask for Shabbat home hospitality? Do we approach the boy and girl whose father or mother has died, or whose father is not Jewish, or the married man who merely works for his brother? I don’t think so. Not in my experience.
Listen to someone of modest means at a Shabbat hotel program lament a theft of $500 cash from his room, and who among us thinks of taking up a collection to salvage that family’s oneg? Instead, we have grist for a new mill — table conversation at lunch.
“Did you hear about the family that was robbed?”
“Yeah, it was $500, I heard.”
“Should we help them out?”
“Naaaah. They were stupid. They should have put their cash in the safe.”
Maybe that is why the Torah commands us in a strange, double command: Tzedek, tzedek — justice, justice shall you pursue. Because, amid a smug sense that no one can bribe me, that I am above being perverted in justice, that I surely would exact only pure justice if I were a judge of the Superior Court, the reality is that I — and the vast majority of us — never become clothed in the black judicial robes of the bench. But we do indeed sit in judgment of people every day of our lives. At work. At play. At home.
We legitimately encourage our kids to play with — and later to marry — approved kids from approved families. We legitimately protect them from bad elements in society. Yet we also cast our net of judgment wider, writing off so many good people, little people, the financially less successful, the children of the unimportant, just on the fringe of society’s excellence, qualified to enter yet desperately trying to gain admittance. The singles. The divorced. The boys and girls without a parent, whether missing one due to death, divorce or simple parental apathy.
Do you take bribes? Think about it.