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Truth & Justice - Rosh HaShanah Day 1 5779

09/13/2018 04:59:55 PM



The story is told that the raven and the nightingale once had a competition to decide which of them had the sweetest voice.  All the animals gathered to listen and the pig was appointed judge. The nightingale sang so sweetly, the raven cried out hoarsely, and the pig, whose decision was final, ruled that the raven was the winner.  As agreed, the raven pecked out the nightingale’s eyes and flew away triumphant. A lion used to rest beneath the tree where the nightingale had its perch. Every night after losing the competition the blind bird sang so poignantly that the lion couldn’t sleep. “Your song is so sad that I can’t sleep,” he said to the little bird. “Is it because you lost your sight that your heart aches so terribly?” “No,” replied the nightingale, “that’s not why I’m sad. What really hurts me is that it had to be the pig who was the judge!”

I first encountered this story a few months ago and it has been haunting me ever since, so much so that I can almost hear the nightingale’s sad song echoing through the cosmos and our broken world.  I am wondering if the connection is in part because my last name comes from the Russian Solovei, which means a nightingale. When I went to Ukraine in search of the Baal Shem Tov, I was greeted by an immigration officer at the airport in Kiev who looked at my passport and said “Solovei. Ukrainian name. It means the bird who loves to sing. Welcome home Mr. Solovei.”  That was the most beautiful welcome to any country I have had in my travels, which is ironic considering the horrendous cruelty our people have experienced there from the Cossacks, communists and Nazi collaborators. The sweet songs of our ancestors were silenced and drowned in bitter tears. On a family pilgrimage to Lithuania in search of my own maternal great grandfather’s family in 2016, we visited the sites of killing fields in Polnar Forest and outside the town of Butrimonys, where some of my mother’s 2nd cousins were shot in open graves in 1942.  In both of these places, there was stunningly beautiful birdsong in the air belying the ruthless tragedy of what had happened there.

The blind nightingale’s own experience is that the judge is a pig and the story implies a cruel randomness to the world.  We don’t have to go back to sites of murdered Jews in Europe to see awful travesties of justice all over the world, including of course, in our own nation, that might lead us to the conclusion that the judge is a pig.  

The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) tells the story of a boy whose father asks him to climb a ladder in a tree to shoo away a mother bird from a nest to take the eggs.  The ladder collapses and the boy falls to his untimely death. There are two mitzvot in the Torah whose fulfillment carries the promise of a long life: honoring one’s parents and sheluach hakayn, shooing away a mother bird from a nest before taking the eggs.  This boy is performing both and his life is cut short. The Talmud suggests that Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, known as Acher, “the other,” witnessed this tragedy and it was the source of his apostasy; he became a heretic and, according to the account in Milton Steinberg’s book As a Driven Leaf, on seeing this he declared “leit din, v’leit dayan – there is no justice and no judge.” Is this the same as lamenting the fact that the judge is a pig? Which is more terrifying – a world with no judge or a world with a pig judge?

Life has dealt many of us awful blows and most of us have experienced heartbreak and loss that makes us want to cry in outrage “the judge is a pig!” or “there is no justice and no judge!” Even if we have been spared the personal pain for such a response, we can so easily look out at our world right now and have that same reaction.  Where is justice? Where is the judge?

The Rabbis of the Mishnah (Brachot 9:5) tell us חַיָּב אָדָם לְבָרֵךְ עַל הָרָעָה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא מְבָרֵךְ עַל הַטּוֹבָה chayav Adam l’varech al hara’ah c’shem sh’hu m’varech al hatovah – a person is obligated to bless over the bad just as they are obligated to bless over the good.  This is in the chapter which instructs us on the various brachot, blessings, we say over seeing comets, lightning, seas, rivers, oceans, mountains, on hearing thunder – blessings that express the wonder of creation and the gratitude of our sensory experience to enjoy the world.  Within the list of proscribed blessings, the Mishnah (Berachot 9:4) says:  עַל הַגְּשָׁמִים וְעַל הַבְּשׂוֹרוֹת הַטּוֹבוֹת אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב, וְעַל שְׁמוּעוֹת רָעוֹת אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ דַּיַּן הָאֱמֶת: Al hag’shamim v’al habesorot hatovot omer baruch hatov v’hametiv, v’al shmuot raot omer Baruch Dayan hEmet. Over rain and good news, one says ‘Blessed is the One who is good and who does good’, and over hearing bad news, one says ‘Blessed is the True Judge, Dayan haEmet’.  This is the absolute paradigmatic opposite of “the judge is a pig,” or “leit din, v’leit Dayan” – “there is no justice and no judge.”  How can we reconcile these two opposites?

How many of us can truly and genuinely say in the face of a devastating personal tragedy or loss, Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed is the True Judge?”  Some of us perhaps can. I am not sure if I am one of them. At least not always. The clear theology of this blessing is that there is a higher level of truth and justice that we cannot possibly understand with our limited human, earthly perception of the world; that even when something unbearable happens, there is some kind of divine justice behind it.  Our tradition challenges us to see that there is order even in the total chaos; that life is not as cruel and random as it appears. One of the names of Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaDin, Judgment Day, with the frightening image that rather than simply renewing and celebrating creation on the world’s birthday, we all stand in judgment, with God as the ultimate judge, determining our future. I expect most of us find that concept pretty challenging at best; but the ultimate goal is that our prayers, our actions and our willingness to change will somehow influence that Judge to overflowing compassion for us all, no matter what we have done, and for the world.

In the mystical realm where there is no separation, everything happens for a reason, there is a Dayan HaEmet.  That does not mean that we have to embrace a theology that tries to explain the inexplicable, to justify the unjustifiable, to minimize human suffering. I have said before that in the face of another’s unbearable pain, we have no right to interpret and force meaning onto that pain; rather, all we are called to do is simply to be present and help them find their own meaning, if there is in fact any. Perhaps between the extremes of a “pig judge” and a “true judge,” there is another way to help us make sense of the world,  beyond nihilistic despair on one hand and a pure type of faith, that is hard for many of us, on the other.

In the Torah a few weeks ago, we read the verse “צדק צדק לרדוף – tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you will seek.”  The commandment is in the second person singular, by which we are meant to understand that each one of us is to pursue justice.  Tzedek, the same root, of course, of Tzedakah and Tzadik, is repeated to emphasize how important the quest is for each of us.  Tzedakah, often translated as charity,  does not mean putting some change in a tin, or even donating online to our favorite charities. It means aligning ourselves to our tradition’s demand to participate in bringing justice to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, to all who are vulnerable and afraid in this unbalanced society. We must be attuned to social injustice, economic injustice, racial injustice and environmental injustice, filled with compassion for all that suffer and the will to participate in any ways we can.  Reb Zalman used to teach that the most important question in the notes of the Shofar is “what is the shofar calling me to do this year to make the world a better place?”

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peshischka explains that the repetition of tzedek, tzedek teaches that even in the pursuit of justice, there has to be justice.  Sometimes a just end may be fought using unjust means, like working for an important cause, but mistreating others along the way.  We may feel so passionate, evangelical even, about a particular issue or idea, that we shame others who don’t share our views, caring sometimes much more for the justice of strangers or defenseless animals than for people in our families and communities – like animal rights or anti-abortion activists who go so far as to blow people up or shoot them for their cause! Justice is elusive at best and each of us has a different sense of what justice is.  Human attempts to create systems of justice are often pretty flawed. Jewish tradition demands absolute impartiality for judges and totally prohibits acceptance of any bribes. The checks and balances that come from the judicial branch of the US government are so crucial to a just society, and yet I struggle to understand how a Supreme Court where judges are nominated by the President – according to their stated positions, whether liberal or conservative, on a whole range of issues – is an impartial system of justice. We know that we have a legal system that can be partial, unfair and discriminatory, and yet, thankfully, so many people in this community,  around the country and around the world work through legal means to bring more justice and fairness to our world. Thank God for the judiciary!

Hashiva shofteynu k’v’rishonah, restore our judges as in the days of old…baruch atah Adonai ohev Tzedakah u’mishpat, Blessed are You who loves righteousness and justice. That is the language of the eighth petitionary blessing in the weekday Amidah, imagining a God who loves righteousness and justice in the human, legal realm. The daily Psalm for Tuesday, Psalm 82, challenges us to have the highest spiritual ideals in the work of judges and justice. This is Reb Zalman’s translation of that psalm:

God presides among those
Who administer judgment,
(and warns them),
“How much longer will you twist
Your verdicts and favor the wicked? Selah!
In your judging, consider the modest, the orphan.
Find justice for the destitute and the oppressed.
Assist the poor, the down and out.
Save them from the bullies’ hands

Not knowing, unawares you are,

You walk in the dark,
While the foundations of earth are toppling.

I set you to be judges, to be like angels of the Most High.

But you will die like anyone else,

Topple like demoted princes.

Arise, O God!

Bring justice to the world!

You can bring order
to all the nations.

The judge is seen not as a pig, but as an agent or even an angel of God, charged with bringing Divine justice into the human world. The psalm recognizes the sanctity and the power of the Judge, and at the same time, recognizes that the Judge is still inherently human, and therefore fallible and possibly corruptible.

Targum Onkelus, which is an Aramaic translation of the Torah, renders the Hebrew word Tzedek, as in Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof,  as kushta, which actually means truth, emet as in Dayan HaEmet – the True Judge. Justice and truth are so integrated within each other. Part of the inherent problem with justice is that truth has been challenged in unprecedented ways – where truth is not truth, facts are not facts and news is not news. We all believe that the news sources that we have chosen, tell us the truth, but it is so much more complicated, because often what we choose to read, watch and listen to merely confirms our view of the world, rather than challenging us to look at the nuance and complexity. The power of the Psalmist is the absolute recognition that justice demands truth and truth demands justice.  

Lo b’shamayim hee – it is not in heaven,” – cries out our Torah in last week’s reading from Nitzavim in the Book of Deuteronomy, but rather it is for us to figure out down here on earth, b’ficha u’vilvavecha la’asoto – it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”  While the angels of compassion, truth, justice and peace are arguing with each other about whether it is a good or bad idea for humans to be created, says the Midrash, God takes the Angel of Truth and throws her to the ground. Truth and justice are here in this human realm, and each one of us is like a Supreme Court Judge, charged with bringing them deeply into our lives, restoring them and polishing them so that, in the words of the Prophet Amos, “justice will roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If we want to straddle those paradoxical worlds of a judge who is a pig and the True Judge, we need to recognize that we all have the capacity to judge others and ourselves in ways that are true, healing and redemptive, or in ways where we, in our own human frailty, are like the pig judge.  I do not want to live in a world where there is no justice and no judge. However hard it is to look out at the world and say Baruch Dayan HaEmet sometimes, we must strive to find within ourselves, our families, our community, tender glimpses of truth, justice, kindness. We must remind ourselves and each other that we are empowered and urged to judge ourselves and those around us favorably, impartially, lovingly, and in a way that strives to see the good.

Shanah tovah!

Sun, November 28 2021 24 Kislev 5782