Within Our Circles of Justice – Rosh HaShanah 5777
There once was a young man who went out into the world to seek justice. He heard the Torah declare tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue. Somewhere true justice must exist, he was sure, but he had never found it. So he set out on a quest that lasted for many years. He went from town to town and village to village, and everywhere he went, he searched for justice, but never did he find it. He went into houses of worship, schools, he even went to the Supreme Court, but could not find true justice. Even in the fields, rivers, lakes and oceans, justice eluded him.
In this way many years passed, until the man had explored all of the known world except for one last, great, mysterious forest. “Maybe justice lives in this forest!” He thought. He entered that dark forest without hesitation, for by now he was fearless. “Trees, is there any justice in your branches? Is there justice in your roots?” He went into the caves of thieves, but they mocked him and said, “Do you expect to find justice here?” And he went into the huts of witches, where they were stirring their brews, but they laughed at him and said, “Do you expect to find justice here?”
The man went deeper and deeper into that forest, until he saw a mysterious cottage unlike anything he had seen before. There was a shimmering light shining through the window. “Maybe justice lives inside this cottage.” He knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again. Nothing. He pushed open the creaky door and stepped inside. He saw where the light was coming from – he saw row after row after row of shelf after shelf and on every shelf there were dozens of oil burning candles. Some of those candles were in precious holders of gold or silver or marble, and some were in cheap holders of clay or tin. And some of the holders were filled with oil and the flames burned brightly, while others had very little oil left and were sputtering as if about to go out.
Just as he was wondering what an earth or what not on earth all these candles could possibly be, an old man, with a long, white beard wearing a white robe, appeared before him. “Shalom aleikhem, my son” the old man said. “How can I help you?” The man replied, “Aleikhem shalom. I have gone everywhere searching for justice, but never have I seen anything like this. Tell me, what are all these candles?”
The old man said, “Each of these candles is the candle of a person’s soul. As long as the candle continues to burn that person remains alive. But when the candle burns out that person’s soul takes leave of this world.”
The man asked, “Can you show me the candle of my soul?”
“Follow me,” the old man said, and he led him to a far corner of the seemingly endless labyrinth of the cottage, where the old man indicated a low shelf, and pointed to a candle in a simple holder of clay and said, “That is the candle of your soul.”
Now the man took one look at that flickering candle, and a great fear fell upon him, for the wick of that candle was very short, and there was very little oil left, and it looked as if at any moment the wick would slide into the oil and sputter out. He began to tremble. Could it be that his life was so near its end? Then he noticed the candle next to his own, also in a clay holder, but still full of oil and blissfully burning. “And whose candle is that?” “Each person is only permitted to know the candle that is their own soul.” And with that the old man disappeared
Suddenly a loud sputtering sound was heard and smoke was rising from another shelf. A soul had just left the world. He looked back at his own candle and saw that there were only a few drops of oil left. Strangled by fear, an evil thought overcame him. He looked around. There was no sign of the old man. He reached out and grabbed his neighbor’s candle and held it above his own. A strong hand seized his arm. It was the hand of the old man. “Is this the kind of justice you are looking for? Is this the justice that you seek?”
The man closed his eyes because it hurt so much. And when he opened them, everything had disappeared. There was no old man, no candles, no cottage even. He was all alone in the forest where the trees were whispering his fate.
Just a few weeks ago the weekly Torah portion included that verse tzedek, tezedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall seek or pursue, with its doubling up of the word for justice, tzedek. The repetition is understood not only to emphasize the great importance of justice in our tradition, but is interpreted by some of the Hassidic thinkers to mean that even in the pursuit of justice, there must be justice; or in other words, we cannot address justice on the outside until we have looked at justice within ourselves. In our passionate quest for justice in the world, we can act unjustly, like the character in the story who has searched for justice his whole life only to be tricked by it.
Oy there is so much injustice in this world, it is hard to know where to begin. Racism and gun violence; innocent, young black men filling our prisons, while violent, white predators live free in our neighborhoods; environmental injustice and degradation, global poverty and disease, injustice in our food system, in health care, in corporate greed, in the dishonesty and fearmongering and lies of our politicians, in the brutal forms of injustice perpetrated by terror groups, the plight of millions of refugees trying to find safety and shelter in the world just like so many of our ancestors did; the injustice of the world’s demonization of Israel, while cruel regimes perpetrate genocide without criticism. I could go on and on with situations and causes that demand our care, our attention, our time and our money. It is overwhelming how much injustice is in our world.
This year my world has been rocked in ways beyond what I could have imagined with the loss of my dad, which I am going to speak more about on Yom Kippur, but something has narrowed in my own vision, my own sense of justice. It is not that I care less about the world, but my circle of concern, my personal realm of justice has become smaller. How effective can we be in healing the world if we are not operating with integrity and justice within the circles of self, family, friends, coworkers, community, our local environment?
A couple of weeks ago, I had an incredible experience on a farm with a small group of young families and individuals. Amy and Wyatt, the co-owners of Red Wagon Organic Farm, which provides our Jewish community its food for members of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) invited me to come and do some end of summer harvesting. We went twice over a period of a few days and picked bags and bags of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets and carrots. The excitement of the kids, Rafi, Sophia, Razi, Zamir and Yonah, being farmers for an hour or so was infectious and beautiful. No screens or devices, just little hands in the dirt. Something really struck me. Here we were gleaning wonderful, local, organic food from the ground, getting our hands and feet dirty in the earth and then storing, cooking, preserving this food for our community, as well as distributing some of it to people in need, sharing the bounty with direct gifts or donations to Harvest of Hope food pantry. There was something so healing and enjoyable about this experience and it felt like we were creating a mini justice system right here; aligning the earth and its bounty with community and with people in need, so much closer to the Torah’s vision of agriculture and food systems.
Rosh HaShanah has become known in a rather frightening way as Yom HaDin – Judgement Day, the day of intense justice, and yet it is the New Year, celebrating the renewal of life and the birth of creation. The 20th Century Lithuanian Hassidic commentator Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, known by the name of his book the Netivot Shalom points out that the Torah itself has no mention of Rosh HaShanah as a day of judgment; it is known as Yom HaZikkaron and Yom Teruah, the day of remembrance and the day of sounding the shofar and it should be a big, joyful birthday party for the world! The teaching goes on to say that on this day, there is a massive hitchadshut, a renewal, or a realignment if you will, where every single aspect of creation, every person on this planet is reenlivened with its original mission. Everything, everyone has a task, a purpose that is unique to them and there is this kind of hard reset to the original blue print of creation, restoring factory settings if you will! The judgement of Rosh HaShanah, according to this idea, is that the source of creation examines each creature to see if it is indeed aligned to its original task. This is a sort of internal justice and a profound invitation for us to review our lives. The question is not “am I saving the world? Am I fighting for global justice?” but “am I living the life that I am meant to live, not trying to live someone else’s life, stealing their flame because mine is not bright enough, like the man in the story? Am I living with justice in the spheres of my own influence? Am I in right relationship with myself, my values, the people I care most about?
We don’t know, we can’t ever know how long our lives are going to be. My father lived an incredibly full life and celebrated his 89th birthday right here in Boulder and even toured this beautiful new JCC on his last birthday. We all were convinced that he would live well into his 90s with more to look forward to, but it wasn’t to be. Others here are in mourning for loved ones whose lives were cut way too short and cruelly in this last year. There is so much more that we don’t know than we do know about the nature of this universe; most of the important questions have no clear answers and our lives are mysterious. Who will live and who will die? We have to embrace the not knowing and live our lives with as much meaning as we can.
Nothing could have prepared me for the loss of my father and I had no idea how the loss would actually impact me, even though I have been through similar losses dozens of times with others. I have learned so much through it all, but that is the subject of another sermon. Having the structure of prayer and kaddish and the marking of time with community and family has certainly helped in the process. How we support each other at these times is itself a form of justice. Visiting the sick, showing up to help make a minyan, caring for our ageing parents and grandparents, helping a friend in need, supporting local food initiatives, milking goats, being an active member of this wonderful community and giving of our time and money, being kind to a stranger, baking challah with Ivy and the crew, helping resolve conflicts, working for peace, listening with compassion, recycling and composting, helping to educate our children can all be forms of justice. They may not end gun violence or build an urgently needed hospital in Ghana, or give a home to desperate refugees, but may impact our own lives and those of the people in our community in extraordinary ways.
Recently, our wonderful Administrative Director, Kit, celebrated her 40th birthday. Instead of presents, she invited everyone to do a random act of kindness during the day. Can you imagine the impact of a whole community of people consciously being kind to each other? It can literally change lives. Many of us in Boulder were so moved by the sad and untimely death of James Biar, who came to Boulder in 2001 as one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a refugee with nothing. He graduated CU and raised a wonderful family. James was not an international development worker working for justice. He was a checkout guy at King Sooper on 30th who greeted everyone with such warmth and humanity and influenced so many through simple kindness. There were 100s of people at his funeral two Saturdays ago, including people from our Jewish community, and a Go Fund Me campaign has raised close to $100,000. James may not have had the international influence of the great elder statesman of Israel, Shimon Peres who also sadly died last week, but in different ways both these men were giants, influencing their worlds.
Tzedek, tdedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall seek whispers to us to realign ourselves to our purpose in this world and to embrace our mission, the one that is uniquely ours. Reb Zalman used to talk about each of us being deployed in the world. So, how are you deployed? To save the burning world or to be a more patient friend? To end violence or to be a more loving parent?