Parshat Shoftim: the story, the whole story and nothing but the whole story
“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
These are the famous words of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice. Shylock had experienced discrimination at the hands of Antonio. He asks why can’t he be allowed to exact revenge in response to his own maltreatment? In a matter of moments, we jump from sympathizing with the victim Shylock to finding no excuses for an individual who wants to behave as poorly as his aggressor. Senseless bigotry is the kickstarter to a back and forth barrage of hateful words and actions. The origin of this cycle, discriminating because of race or creed, is nothing new to us. We might associate this discrimination with decades ago or miles away, but we unfortunately are not immune to these events within the Jewish world.
Travel from Shakespeare’s 16th century tragic comedy to the non-comedic tragedy of this past week. Downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square hosted a convention of sorts. Dozens of Jewish youth convened together to attack 3 Palestinian youths, shouting “Death to the Arabs” along with other racial slurs. One of those attacked, 17 yr old Jamal Julani, fell on the floor, and his attackers continued to beat him until he lost consciousness. The mob turned on Jewish first responders. Some in the angry crowd did not understand why the medics were shocked by what they found. As one eyewitness put it:
“When one of the Palestinian youths fell to the floor, the [Jewish] youths continued to hit him in the head, he lost consciousness, his eyes rolled, his angled head twitched, and then those who were kicking him fled and the rest gathered in a circle around, with some still shouting with hate in their eyes.” Haaretz quoted the main suspect — a 15-year-old boy — as saying of one of the alleged victims: “For all I care, let him die. He’s an Arab. He cursed my mother. He can die.” Were these youth egging on their attackers? Maybe. That’s no justification for the actions and remarks that ensued.
Jamal Julani’s wounds may physically heal, but these actions reveal a growing epidemic. I’m appalled at this story. In my mind, I say to myself in not so pleasant terms, “Seriously?”
Pointless, senseless, and immoral acts of violence and hatred. Somewhere along the line someone was given the green light- that this opinion, these actions are not only valid and acceptable, but preferable! We must watch our tongues: Not only for how we speak to our loved ones but in what words we use to describe those outside our circles. When we speak ill of those on the periphery, those who are marginalized, those on the other side of the fence, we breed hatred and bigotry. We foster an unending cycle that clouds our sense of right and wrong.
The way we speak to and about each other is not only a lesson for those in pre or elementary school. Today, we turn the television stations to find politicians spewing hateful speech against one another. Even those who refrain from derogatory speech find ways to manipulate words to delegitimize the other. We see the political “savviness” of selecting sound bites that destroy your opponent’s credibility. Topics twisted and turned. We make issues such as “rape” as political platforms rather than cries for help to protect against indecency and injustice.
When the story is manipulated, when we only hear or learn part of the story, this inhibits our ability to find the truth. This turns on the green light to bigotry. Who are we to be judge jury and executioner when we can’t see the whole picture?
It is important to read all the lines and everything in between them. This is no new concept. It’s a way to read both situation and text for as long as we know of. When reading our ancient texts we must pay special attention to details. It’s our responsibility to investigate why every word, every syllable, every trope, is in a specific location.
In our Torah portion this week, we are given an outline for our judicial and political system. We are given details for a king, priests, Levites, and prophets. We are given detailed instructions to appoint magistrates and officials to help keep us in check. We are given more laws to help regulate our society. Each of these laws is a sound bite. We may naturally pick and choose the words to quote; find the words that help prove our point. We may think we are dealing with a laundry list of laws, a hodgepodge of unorganized regulations. If we only listen to one section, one paraphrasing, we might miss the original context. We might miss the meaning.
I’ll give an example:
Verse 20:13-14 “And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.”
Mass Murder. Spoils of war. Sounds like a brutal society. Sounds like a good platform for war, a great sound bite for religious fanatics on any side. So then where’s the humanity in a time of war? With context, the text describes the Israelite kindness even in wartime. War is a last resort. Israel must offer peace to every city attacked. They must conduct themselves with reason and mercy. Is this humanity according to modern standards? Maybe not. But in seeing the whole story, we can see war as the very last resort. Israel is no longer the aggressor.
Later on in our parsha, we encounter Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge, for those who may have unintentionally killed another person. These cities were intended to ban those who desire “blood revenge.”
Today, we speak of war as if it is exclusively a matter of physical altercation. As we see every day, there are wars of words. There are those who are still “out for blood” both literally and figuratively. Are we part of the mob out for “blood?”
As we begin this season of repentance and reflection, it is also the season of name-calling, the season of beat-downs- both political and physical in nature, the season of taking a sound bite and reframing it for political gain or to justify the unjustifiable. This is an ugly time on the calendar, but this season arrives with an opportunity that most will undoubtedly pass up on- to listen up. To read the entire text, turn on both channels, to listen to what’s being said. For the opportunists, the Bullies and bigots will only stand down only if others are standing up, using every peaceful and respectful option possible, to repair our relationships with our adversaries, to repair this system of attack vs. attack, to repair our world.
Our Torah reading states, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof– “true justice you shall pursue.” We say tzedek, “justice”, two times, for there is always more than one side to anything. Justice has more than one side. Above all, we must see the value of human life, of responsible behavior, of peaceful interaction. We must hear the story, the whole story, and nothing but the whole story. It is only then, that we can live in a just and right world filled with openness and respect.