Sof’tim, 22 August 2020 – Leslie Wheeler

For my sermon today I have chosen two important themes from Parahsha Sof’tim:

  • The guarantee and pursuit of justice within Jewish society
  • The protection and safeguard of trees

The pursuit of justice in Jewish society evolves from the instructions Moses gave to the Israelites who are about to cross the Jordan to become responsible for their own lives in their own land.

Moses commands the Children of Israel: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God Adonai is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. “(Deuteronomy 16:18-19)” This is followed by the central declaration we read in verse 20 “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף” (‘Justice Justice thou shalt pursue’).

The pursuit of justice has been a fundamental tenet of Judaism. The prophet Amos declares in the name of God “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Tzedek (justice) and tzedekah (charity) stem from the same Hebrew root relating to justice and charity. How do we interpret justice? Is it fairness, a moral righteousness or is it decency? How do we interpret charity? Is it to give money generously to those who are poor, sick, or in need?

Some people give money to charity because they like the gratitude they get in return. Unquestionably, giving to a deserving charity does make us feel good but Jewish tradition teaches us that it’s an even greater mitzvah to give charity anonymously. No one should be made to feel embarrassed or humiliated because they are hungry or poor. We need to maintain their dignity by giving or helping them discreetly. We don’t need their thanks nor should they be made to feel indebted to us. Giving charity in this way acts to combine tzedek and tzedekah by giving charity in a just and fair manner.

Some people think tzedek, tzedek tirdof means that we should try particularly hard to be just and fair. For example, a police officer has a responsibility to remain fair and not give favouritism in the pursuit of their duty. Consider the following scenario; a crowd control police officer who happens to be a Manchester United fan is on duty at a local football derby between Manchester United and Manchester City. After the match the fans from both clubs became disorderly. Would it be fair or just if the police officer went out of his way to arrest only fans wearing Manchester City football shirts?

Being just or fair often requires looking outside the box and resisting our intuitive instincts. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof commands us to be strong and use good judgment.

The etiquette of Jewish justice is described by a quote made by author Elie Wiesel in which he tells the story of the one righteous man of Sodom, who walked the streets protesting against the injustice in his city. People made fun of him, derided him. Finally, a young person asked: “Why do you continue your protest against evil; can’t you see no one is paying attention to you?” He answered, “I’ll tell you why I continue. In the beginning, I thought I would change people. Today, I know I cannot. Yet, if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.”

The Israelites are commanded to deal fairly with each other, including the stranger, regarding weights and measures, land boundaries and all other business dealings. Even lay people in the Jewish community are encouraged to stand up and protest against injustice. Leviticus 19:35 instructs us: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgement, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just efa, a just hin, shall you have.”

A description of the legal framework established in the Promised Land
The author of the Mishna Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi describes each city as having its own local bet din (House of Justice) comprising of 3 or 7 Judges. If judgement could not be reached at the local bet din the case was referred to the Lower Sanhedrin (Jewish Court of Law) comprising of 23 Judges. If judgement remained unresolved, then the final arbiter of law was the Great Sanhedrin comprising of 71 judges.

A simple majority would determine the verdict of a non-capital case e.g. cases of misdemeanour or felony not punishable by death, however for capital crimes that could result in the death penalty a majority of two or more was necessary for conviction. A higher court could reverse the decision of a lower court on non-capital cases but in capital cases the higher court could only reverse a judgement from conviction to acquittal.

The Selection and Qualifications of Judges (1)
“The Jewish Court System” by Yehuda Shurpin describes the prerequisites for selection to the Sanhedrin:

“Every judge was required to have the following seven attributes: wisdom, humility, awe of heaven, a loathing for money (even his own), a love for truth, the love of the people at large, and a good reputation.

In addition, to be appointed to the greater or lesser Sanhedrin, one had to have achieved distinction in Torah knowledge and posses some knowledge of intellectual disciplines such as medicine, mathematics, calendar, astronomy, astrology and the teachings of idolatry, so that he would know how to judge cases concerning those fields. He could not be too old or childless when appointed, since someone with a family is more likely to be sympathetic and merciful. Members of the Sanhedrin could be Kohanim, Levites, or Israelites of fine pedigree”

Judgement relating to fair dealings in weights and measures remains part of today’s legal framework, e.g., the department of Trading and Standards, the Office for Product Safety and Standards are but two institutions that have evolved to provide fair dealings in our modern society. But how do we reconcile the judgement of animals? Exodus 21:28-29 describes the judgement of a bull that has gored a person to death. If this was the bull’s first offence, then only the bull would be sentenced to death. But if the bull had previously gored someone to death and the farmer had done nothing to constrain the bull from goring again, then both the bull and the farmer would to be sentenced to death.

The notion that an animal should be tried for a crime is completely alien to our 21st century sensibilities. Animals do not commit crimes, they act on instinct. When the instincts lead to a conflict with human society animals may be destroyed but surely there can be no justification for subjecting the animal to a trial?

Even though the thought of judging animals is abhorrent to us, the practice has existed throughout history.  The following are two excerpts from Professor Jen Girgen’s book ‘The historical and contemporary prosecution of animals’ (2):

“In 1575 weevils were helping themselves to the vineyards in a picturesque hamlet in France and were brought to trial. The plaintiff and the two lawyers appointed as counsel for the beetle defendants presented their respective sides of the case…Pierre Rembaud, the beetles’ newly appointed defence counsel, made a motion to dismiss the case. Rembaud argued that, according to the Book of Genesis, God had created animals before human beings and had blessed all the animals upon the earth, giving to them every green herb for food. Therefore, the weevils had a prior right to the vineyards, a right conferred upon them at the time of Creation… While the legal wrangling continued, the townspeople organised a public meeting in the town square to consider setting aside a section of land outside of the Saint Julien vineyards where the insects could obtain their needed sustenance without devouring and destroying the town’s precious vineyards. They selected a site named “La Grand Feisse” and described the plot “with the exactness of a topographical survey.”…However, the weevils’ attorney declared that he could not accept, on behalf of his clients, the offer made by the plaintiffs. The land…was sterile and not suitable to support the needs of the weevils. The plaintiff’s attorney insisted that the land was, in fact, suitable and insisted upon adjudication in favour of the complainants. The judge decided to reserve his decision and appointed experts to examine the site and submit a written report upon the suitability of the proposed asylum.

How did this case end? We have no idea. The last pages of the court records were (I kid you not) eaten by insects” 

Now to a more recent event:
“This is what happened in New Jersey in 1991, when Taro, a 110lb Japanese Akita dog, was sentenced to death by a judge in Bergen County after it had apparently attacked its owner’s niece. Taro’s owner appealed the verdict and the dog remained on death row for three years, until the order to execute the dog was upheld. That’s when newly elected Governor Christin Todd Whitman issued an executive order and reprieved the dog which by now had been imprisoned for more than one thousand days at a cost to the state of more than $100,000. Taro was exiled from New Jersey, and died in her sleep five years later”

The Protection and Safeguard of Trees
Moses commands the people “When in your war against the city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” Then as if to show pity for the trees, he asks: “Are trees of the field, like human beings, capable of withdrawing before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Jewish interpreters relate this to cover all forms of wasteful destruction under the principle of bal tashchit (do not destroy).

Parahsha Sof’tim forbids the destruction of trees, not only by chopping them down with an axe but by all means of destruction including the diversion of rivers away from the trees roots. The wasteful destruction of anything during times of war or peace is condemned. “Anyone who wantonly breaks dishes, tears clothing, destroys a building, wastes food and water violates the law of bal tashchit.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, “Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, approximately 1.3 billion tons, gets lost or wasted.” (3)

Disposing of food costs money and simply discarding our food waste into landfill sites results in the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. (4)

Recently while I was reflecting on the world’s current crises: Covid 19 and its disastrous influence on jobs, our economy, our lifestyles and freedoms’ and the Lebanon disaster, where thousands of people have lost loved ones, limbs, homes and livelihoods, I began to wonder what had brought our World to this current state of turmoil? This verse from Jeremiah gave me some consolation:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall  be like a tree planted by the water, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat comes, but its leave shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit”. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

I see both the verses from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah describing the trees of the field as an example for mankind to emulate:

  • We must allow our roots to reach out towards the river but in doing so we should not obstruct the roots of other trees from reaching the essential resource.
  • We must ensure are roots are deeply rooted in the ground so that when the storms come we will remain standing, able to provide protection to the weaker trees around us.
  • We must extend our branches and cover them with leaves sufficient for our wellbeing but not to excess whereby we restrict the natural light reaching the smaller trees and saplings in our neighbourhood.
  • We should resist producing greater quantities of fruit than we can support, in case our overburdened branches fall causing damage to our surrounding environment.

A famous quote by Chief Seattle, that great native American Indian Chief whose name lives to this day through the city Seattle, named after him.

“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.”

Shabbat Shalom

(2) The historical and contemporary prosecution of animals. Author: Jen Girgen.  Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark Law School (2003)
(3) Global Food Losses and Food Waste, commissioned by FAO from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK).