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Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 7th Elul 5776, 10th September 2016
A legal system and justice. Two entities that hopefully overlap, but don’t always. A legal system is the framework in which we maintain order and try to overcome the chaos that almost always threatens to engulf us. Justice is the content, which in some cases means making sure that the good guys come out on top and in others that the law must sometimes bend (just as banks bend the rules to give billions to some people).
The most famous phrase in our parsha, and one of the most famous in the Torah, opens the reading: tzedek tzedek tirdof. You shall pursue justice at all costs (to which the cynics add, you can pursue it but that doesn’t mean you’ll catch it).
The parsha ends on a note in which the law is served but justice may have to wait. This is the case of a body being found in a field outside the jurisdiction of any city. According to the parsha, the elders of the closest city are commanded to go to the murder site. They are to bring a young calf that has never worked or pulled a cart to a river that runs all year (and does not dry up in the summer), which does not serve for irrigating the fields. The calf is to be beheaded in the river. The Levites, who are supposed to know all the doings and disputes in the city, are also in attendance. And there, over the beheaded calf, the elders declare, “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it happen.”
This is a strange ceremony. Obviously the elders are not suspected or implicated in the murder. And what did that poor calf do to deserve such an end?
Rabbi David Stav offers some insights into the enigma. Let’s start with the calf. Note that all of the conditions for concluding this investigation – a young calf, an empty field, a river not used for irrigation – are all symbols of unfulfilled potential. The young calf, like the dead person, will never have a life, a family, a future. It is a tragedy. The field is not being used, another waste. The water is not used to nourish the land. All symbols of barrenness and loss.
That’s the easy part. What about the elders? They are responsible for the city but not for this death, or are they? According to Rabbi Stav, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud give the same explanation – but from different angles.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, the elders are saying, ‘We didn’t let this poor man, the victim, leave our city without food or water. We took care of him, we saw him out of our city safe and sound.’
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the elders are saying, ‘We didn’t let the murderer leave our city without food or water,’ meaning, we made sure that whoever left our city would have no motive to kill caused by his lacking something that the victim had. We can also read the Jerusalem Talmud explanation to mean: we were not lax about punishing violent behavior in the past, by the unknown murderer or anyone else. We took the necessary steps to discourage violence.
Taken together, the two talmuds create a picture in which the judicial system together with the city authorities have their finger on the pulse of the city and on the behaviors of the citizenry.
This is not so far removed from the “tzedek tzedek tirdof” at the beginning of the parsha. It merely expands the scope of law and governance and justice to include all of the systems in an integrated mechanism for assuring the welfare and lives of the people who live there.
In the middle of the week, the mayor of our city came under investigation for taking bribes, which if true goes directly against what is written in our parsha. Of course with so much building going on and so much money at stake, it is hard to see how someone in authority, not necessarily Mrs. Mayor, didn’t give in to temptation.
But earlier in the week we witnessed the terrible collapse of an underground parking lot under construction in Ramat Hahayal (Tel Aviv) with the deaths of several workers. And it turns out that the same company had another parking lot collapse in Holon several years ago.
Add to this the number of workers who are killed every year at construction sites, because safety measures are not taken, existing laws are not enforced and instances of punishment of contractors who were allegedly lax in assuring safety are few and far between.
It is a shame that our Knesset members, along the entire spectrum from left to right, from secular to religious, care so little for human life. It’s more important for some of them to keep the Shabbat holy, for those who will never endanger themselves by working in construction, than to keep people alive so that they can actually celebrate the holy Shabbat. And this criticism is not limited to the haredim. Very few parties have made any effort to improve the situation.
And like the bribery charge, this fits into the category of tzedek tzedek tirdoff. If hundreds of years before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai Avraham could argue for the lives of the sinners of Sodom, our tzadikim in the Knesset should also be able to pursue justice to ensure safety for the lives of ordinary Joes who work hard to make our lives more livable.