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Story of the Sinking Boat#688

08/13/2021 05:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shoftim
“Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Story of the Sinking Boat

There is a story in the Midrash — our collection of ancient stories and interpretations — about a group of people traveling on a ship.

As the boat sets sail, one of the passengers pulls out a drill and begins drilling under his seat. Perhaps he wanted to fish or gather wood for a fire.

Of course, his fellow passengers become alarmed, and say to him, “What are you sitting and doing?” In turn, the man responds: “Why should you care, for it is under my area that I am drilling.”

And they reply, “Yes, but the water will rise and flood all of us on the ship.” (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 4:6)

The story, attributed to the great second century mystic, Shimon bar Yochai, rings especially true today, as we consider issues of justice and the pursuit of a better more righteous world.

These days, the idea of uplifting community over self seems counterintuitive to the narrative being propelled by so many that the most important value we cherish within this country is the “pursuit of individual rights.”

But Judaism has a different view.

This past week, while riding the train back from JFK, I noticed a poster depicting two persons each wearing a mask. Under one, the words read, “I protect you,” and under the other, “You protect me.”

Perhaps, the essence of who we are as Jews makes us slightly different from mainstream America. While we, as Jews, believe in personal choice, individual destiny and a life’s path unique to each of us, we also place the highest value on protecting the community.

Is it any wonder that Israel was the first to reach high levels of vaccination, promoting isolation, masking and a variety of other safety practices? As a result, sickness and death until the emergence of the Delta variant dramatically diminished.

It breaks my heart to watch sickness and death continue to rise each day within states that focus more on individual choice than on the welfare of the entire community.

This week’s Torah reading – Shoftim  (Judges) contains one of the most quoted sentences in all of scripture. A framed copy of it hangs in our home as well as on the walls of many lawyers and judges.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff, which is commonly translated as, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

But justice can be a very tricky concept. What may seem just to me may be unjust to you, and vice versa especially today, in a world that appears so divided. The existence of numerous alternative “truths” has caused conflict and in many cases, the breakup of friendships and family ties. How do we define what justice truly is?

It is perhaps one reason why the word tzedek, justice, is repeated one of the rare times where the Torah doubles down on a word.

But is “justice” the right word?

The legendary journalist David Brinkley told the story of an incident he observed in 1992, which speaks volumes of how the pursuit of justice can become misguided.

He noted that the city of Washington, DC earns a substantial portion of its revenue from traffic citations, moving violations, expired inspection stickers, overdue registrations and, of course, tickets due to expired parking meters.

One day, he observed a meter officer sanding on a Washington curb writing a ticket for an illegally parked car. As he was writing the ticket, a thief had the chutzpa to approach with a screwdriver and steal the car’s license plate.

The officer did not stop him. Rather, he waited until the thief completed his crime. He then gave the car another ticket for having no license plates.

Notes Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky in recounting the story, “Sometimes justice is overwhelmed by the pursuit of it.”

The Hebrew language is fascinating. The Bible contains approximately 7,000 Hebrew words compared to about 170,000 in modern English. So it is incumbent upon us to consider the context of each Hebrew word in the Torah, in order to truly understand its meaning.

For example, how many interpretations are there for the word “Shalom?”

It is why, perhaps the frequent translation of the word tzedek as “justice” may fall short.

Perhaps a more accurate meaning of the word tzedek is “righteousness.” When we give tzedakah  commonly translated as 'charity' we are putting its core word, tzedek to work.

For in reality, the act of tzedakah involves rebalancing the world, where those who have, participate in the raising of those who do not.

There are too many in this world currently twisting the halls of justice to suit their own needs. Some have their own agenda, often skewed towards their own enrichment or privilege. But is this interpretation of justice truly connected to the concept of righteousness?

Friends, we are just over a month away from Yom Kippur, where we will read from the Book of Isaiah a reminder that while fasting and introspection may be important, what God really wants of us is to pursue universal righteousness.

Notes the prophet Isaiah, what God truly wants from us on Yom Kippur is, “To share your bread with the hungry, take in the homeless and clothe the naked.” (Isaiah 58:7)

This accentuation of the community over personal rights is central to who we are as Jews, punctuated even more by the times we currently live in.

Yes, there must be justice in the world but according to whom? 

A look at those states that mandate masks, as opposed to those who do not and how they compare to rates of illness, suffering and death only proves the point: Sometimes we must temporarily waive our entitlements in pursuit of life, health and righteousness for all.

It is so important, that God mentions it twice in the Torah.

Tzedek tzedek tirdoff  “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.”

Indeed, during these challenging times, while we may often feel entitled to drill under our own seats, Jewish tradition stresses the importance of taking care of all humanity.

For we are all in this boat together.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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