It is not like everything is permitted in life – there are laws, there are rules and there are expectations for a normative behavior. This is not something that was invented in our age. The Torah is full of such examples, the prophets frequently address them, and the entire study of the Jewish law seeks to formulate these boundaries. Some setting strict laws, other as interpretation of laws and texts. The week’s portion of the Torah reminds us that there are limits even when dealing with tough situations. It begins with the words, “When you go out to battle against your enemies” and continues with laws and rules, maybe a level or two above what was customary for those days.
The ability to raise the standard of human behavior is of the utmost importance. It makes us relate to where we live and to the way we live and then strive to get better, and better that which is around us. Even when war is waged there is still room for rules of engagement. It seems that the scripture hints at us that what we are given is only a baseline, a level from which we can grow. Therefore, just sticking verbatim to the words of the bible is insufficient. We need to take these lessons a step forward, improve on them.
Israel has been going through waves of demonstrations over the past many weeks. These rallies are essential for a healthy democracy. Trying to stop them from happening is outrageous, despicable and incomprehensible. The use of excessive force by the police when handling such protests requires new thinking about its function so as to prevent it from becoming part of the complex political state that Israel is in anyway. While the prophet Isiah, in this week’s Haftarah, does not really address such demonstrations, he does say, “Enlarge the place of your tent; / Stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, spare not; / Lengthen your cords / And strengthen your pegs.” Maybe this is the message to our police force to broaden things up, be patient, serve the protestors so that they can really exercise their right to protest, and stretch the drapes as much as possible. One should be clear, attacking a police officer is unforgiveable. Nevertheless, the case were a demonstrating civilian, or bystander, is attacked by a police officer is even worse.
Of course, all of these rallies for and against the government, the complaints from the left and the right, seem to argue that there is a side which is illegitimate. Possible, Isiah address them when saying, “you will spread abroad to the right and to the left.” It is not only about the left, nor is it only about the right. None have particular knowledge of skill that makes them superior over the other. There is one fundamental demand presented to both sides, “In righteousness you will be established; / You will be far from oppression, for you will not fear; / And from terror, for it will not come near you.”
We can always choose to be bystanders. Not to get involved, not to endanger ourselves, look the other side, promise to ourselves that it will never happen to us, and that when the time comes, we will be able to act. The problem is that this does not always work. The Torah is well aware of that and commands us, “You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman… and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to ignore them.” Ignoring, neglecting, leaving it to someone else to take care of, there is nothing easier than that. The Torah comes and says that we may not so do. In practice we obviously can, the Torah is well aware of that, however, this will continue to haunt us because the injustice will continue to grow until it engulfs and consumes us completely.
Within three short weeks it will be Rosh HaShana. It will be quite different from may New Year celebrations we have celebrated before, probably also different from years to come. It was certainly an odd year, this year that is coming to an end. There is a good chance that 5781 will also be such a peculiar year too. Its peculiarity should not surprise us. We must enter it prepared, united. Ready to deal with the challenges of the coming year that were brought about by a tiny virus with a crown. We hope that the words of the prophet Isiah will be bestowed upon us, “‘For a brief moment I forsook you, / But with great compassion I will gather you. / In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, / But with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you,’ / Says the Lord your Redeemer.”
Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.
Reuven Marko, 28 August 2020, 9 Elul, 5780