Sunday, July 15, 2007


Weekly Parsha Blogging

This came out more coherently when I gave it as a sermon: I guess I am better at speaking extemporaneously than I am at remember what it was I said when it's about 10 pm and I have a headache:

This week the Haftarah and Torah readings bookend each other: the Torah reading tells of the time when the Hebrew people were poised to enter the land of Israel while the Haftarah, from Jeremiah, tells of when the Jewish people were about to be forced out of the land of Israel.

Note the change in ethnic terminology. It is the book of Jeremiah that first mentions us as not the nation of Israel or Judah, but as the Jewish people. And it is Jeremiah and his Deuteronomic school who created Judaism as the first religion independent of a political nation and thus succeeded beyond their wildest dreams of figuring out how to keep the Hebrew cult-culture alive in foreign lands.

Both the settlement in Israel but also leaving Israel were important steps in the evolution of the Jewish people: it is in the academies of Babylon that Judaism becomes the rich source of moral instruction it is and in which it can become the light unto the nations that it ought to be. In the absence of the perfect leadership of the Messiah, how can a state, necessarily engaged in real-politick, be a light unto the nations? But a people, spread out among the nations, certainly can be such a light. As Jeremiah and the Torah both point out, we Jews must always stand for justice, otherwise we are not truly fulfilling our obligations to God.

One thing striking about this week's parsha is the concern about the manslayer and the problem of blood polluting the last. Pirke Avos 5:10 includes a statement that pestilence comes to the world (and note that all the punishments given in Pirke Avos 11:10 are either random or to everyone -- the sins of some effect all) when capital offenses are not adjudicated in a court of law and also for when the laws of the first fruits and the Sabbitical year are not followed. Thus we see not only a link between procedural justice, economic justice and environmental justice, but also the importance, highlighted in this week's Torah portion, of the due process of law.

Interestingly, we see that whenever, in Numbers, there is rebellion or transgressions that lead to people being put to death, either by God smiting them or by zealots such as Pinchas, there are plagues. One interpretation is that these plagues are just God finishing the job of smiting the sinners. But perhaps even God is wrong to kill people extra-judicially. For when people are killed outside of the due process of law, the capital case is never actually adjudicated in a court of law, thus inviting pestilence to come to the world.

Consider again what Jeremiah says about why God is angry at the people of Judah: not even the priests even bother to ask where God is. They think they know: but they are worshiping a false God. Today religious fundamentalists of all stripes think they know where God is -- but they forget to ask in order to make sure. And in so doing they sin. People who have appointed themselves guardians of morality miss the point about morality and justice -- not just procedural justice but also economic and environment justice and health -- being intertwined. Today's fundamentalists are no different than the unjust who provoked God's wrath against us all just as all but the peasants (who were, as the victims of injustice, the only truly innocent people) were exiled from Israel.

The punishments, e.g. mentioned in Pirke Avos 5:10 are not directed at the sinner as the sins of some affect us all: the punishment for an aveira is another aveira while the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah. We have been rewarded with many obligations. Let us actually live up to our obligation to pursue justice (and not give up and declare the whole enterprise futile and lapse into virtue ethics or even nihilism) and be rewarded with more mitzvos.

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