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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Old Friends, Book Ends (D'var Torah For Parashat Shoftim 5770)

Do you remember this opening stanza of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, “Old Friends”?

Old friends, old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends.
A newspaper blowin' through the grass
Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends.

The song is about two men (perhaps Simon and Garfunkel themselves?) imagining their friendship projected from the position of lively youth many years into the future, when they find themselves much older and lonelier but still together. The song possesses a melancholy beauty, though the rest of its lyrics are somewhat naïve, almost ageist, given the assumptions about aging that the two youthful song writers seemed to have, and given the American youth culture in which they lived.

I actually am not as interested in the song’s treatment of friendship and aging, as in the striking metaphor that it uses: old friends sitting on a park bench like bookends. We could say that this image conveys a kind of deadness and stiffness. After all, bookends may hold in and maintain the shape and position of books, but unlike books, they have no life of their own. Another way to hear this metaphor is this: bookends contain between them the rich breadth and depth of the books that they support; they are a supportive structure and a physical context, without which books lie around and become broken. To the books, those bookends are truly “old friends.”

Let me suggest that to anyone hungry for understanding and wisdom, the beginning and ending sections of this morning’s parashah, Shoftim, are definitely important bookends, and if we allow them to speak to us we will see that they are truly old and trusted friends as well. The first bookend of Shoftim is the all-important theme of justice and some of the rules for its realization: the people of Israel will need a judicial system when they enter the land of Canaan; their judges are forbidden from judging unfairly, from showing partiality, and from taking bribes; we must pursue justice, not wait passively for it to happen to society. The parashah continues with other rules about judges, justice, and the limits of rulers within the rule of law: we are commanded to go to the highest court of the land whenever a case of law is too difficult for us; we may appoint kings to rule over us, but they are bound by specific God given laws, and they must keep a written copy of God’s law with them at all times, to prevent them from grasping too much power; we are only to listen to prophets who speak to us in God’s name when those prophets command us to follow what God has commanded us; in cases of accidental manslaughter, we must provide cities of refuge that protect the killer from the passionate anger of family members of the victim, who would seek to avenge the death of their loved one upon a person who killed without malice. This first bookend of Shoftim is all about justice pursued under the rule of law, with reason and deliberation predominating.

The second bookend of Shoftim, seems to be the exact opposite of the first. It contains a strange passage about a murder victim found in an open field, whose assailant’s identity cannot be determined by normal judicial means of evidence, law and investigation. The same elders and judges who were called upon at the beginning of the parashah to dispense rational, thoughtful justice are now called upon to perform a ritual. Those leaders of the town closest to where the victim was found break the neck of a young heifer over an ever flowing stream. They wash their hands over the animal, and symbolically wash their hands of culpability for the commission of the crime whose injustice they cannot adjudicate and rectify by using the regular apparatus of law. Thus, they cleanse the land and the people of blood that has been shed, for in the minds of our ancestors, the unrequited blood of victims would literally pollute land and society.

In America today, we do not perform rituals like this when a crime cannot be solved or an injustice cannot be rectified. We prefer to focus insistently on our faith in the rational aspects of our laws, judicial proceedings, and judges. After all, we are a democratic, secular society. Are we not fully committed to the idea that the rule of law is supreme, that reasoned investigation will ultimately bring justice, and that our legal system, though imperfect, is the best there is for preserving justice, freedom and human dignity? What do these two bookends, our old friends at each margin of the parashah, seem to be teaching us when they are taken together contextually? Perhaps it is this: the pursuit of justice through law, the courts, fairness, and reasoned application of law is of unparalleled importance: it is the sacred scaffolding upon which our society is founded. But there are times when even the reach of law cannot adequately bring justice; there are times when even those judges and lawmakers charged with dispensing justice according to the rule of law allow people in power to get away with murder, figuratively, if not literally. In those times, Americans and their leaders need rituals -ways of coming together and articulating our sense of injustice- that are comforting and electrifying, religious and secular, personal and communal; they are the ways through which we say to ourselves and each other: “Our hands did not shed this blood, but we still need to cleanse ourselves of the outrages that have occurred by seeing to it that justice and the balances of power are restored.” Only then can the community feel whole and begin to restore justice.