The Calling of Shavuot: Standing Again at Sinai & Standing for Justice

As the holiday approaches, Rabbis for Human Rights share a special Shavuot edition of their newsletter.

The Calling of Shavuot: Standing Again at Sinai & Standing for Justice
Rabbi Michael Marmur, Chairperson, Rabbis for Human Rights

Shavuot Sameach! This year the festival of Shavuot will be experienced in a different way than usual. In various stages of post-lockdown, puzzling over the cultural, institutional and economic impact of this global crisis, we here in Israel find ourselves facing the unprecedented sight of a serving Prime Minister in legal proceedings brought against him on multiple counts. And the worst of it is – that is not the worst of it. Yesterday the Prime Minister arrived at the court surrounded by government ministers and other supporters. In recent days, leading Likud ministers have levelled ad hominem attacks against those charged with the task of upholding the legal system.

I don’t know if our Prime Minister is guilty as charged. I don’t even know if over the years he has been the victim of unfair treatment. There is a lot I don’t know – and indeed, the purpose of due judicial process is to help clarify that which is not known.

Here is what I do know. Ceaseless attacks on the judiciary will bring us down. Inciting the public against the defenders of the legal system is a recipe for decline and decay. Many of the Prime Minister’s supporters have suggested that democracy means: if a majority of the population thinks he’s innocent, then he is, and those who prosecute him are enemies of the people. Such thinking does not promote democracy. Rather, it is a shortcut to its downfall.

This year the festival of Shavuot will be experienced in a different way than usual. As we reflect on the meaning of revelation and law and truth, we should also reflect with alarm on the decline of decency, democracy, and integrity. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz described the role of the Cohanim, the ancient Priests, as The Keepers of the Orchard of Torah. We have a right to expect our elected leaders to behave as Keepers of the Orchard of the Law. If they fail in their duty, the fruit upon which we all depend may wither and die. If they fail in their duty, it is up to the rest of us to promote the defense of the orchard. Those who work in the Israeli system of justice should know that despite egregious assaults on their positions and persons, decent men and women will stand up for them. As, in the words of our tradition, we all stood together at Sinai, so we all stand together in defense of the values upon which our society depends.

When the orchard of the law is trampled, the rights of the oppressed and the Othered are sure to be trampled too. The Hebrew name of our organization is not only Rabbis for Human Rights, but also Defenders of Justice. This Shavuot, so different from the others, as we stand together at Sinai, that is what we are all called to be.

Warm Wishes,
Rabbi Michael Marmur

The Jewish tradition has always reflected a concern for health. At RHR we send special blessings to the nurses, doctors, EMTs, technicians and all health care workers who are on the front line in the battle with the Corona virus in the USA and elsewhere today. Meeting the needs of those most impacted by this terrible new disease and its economic brunt, especially those of the more vulnerable classes of society is no easy task. We find ourselves reflecting on the meaning of all this for our lives, and the kind of society we would want in future. The blessing that many of us might have grown up hearing in Yiddish was “Zei Gezunt“! As Rabbis for Human Rights we should add to that, and say let us continue the battle for health and social justice! May God bless us all with health and the strength we need to get through this and continue our holy work. And of course, may God send comfort to all who mourn the terrible loss of far too many lives.

Traditionally, Jews gather to study Torah on the night of Shavuot. RHR encourages you to participate in this practice with their. There is a vast wealth of material with which to engage. Among other things, we invite you to use our “Independence Tractate” and examine the relationship between modern Israel, Judaism, human rights and democracy.

A Word of Torah for Shavuot – Parashat Naso ,
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, Activst, RHR Member and BOD Member

The Torah given at Sinai was to be the basis of a Divine-Human covenant that was to be the foundation of a peaceful social coexistence within the people of Israel and that was to lead beyond that to a world that is peaceful and based on law. That is the vision of the prophets of Israel – that Jerusalem would be redeemed and justice would flow like mighty waters from Jerusalem, that swords would be turned into plowshares, lions would lie down with lambs and all the nations would worship the one true God, the redeeming God of the Exodus, revealed at Sinai.

There are many rabbinic teachings regarding the value of peace, collated some time in the early medieval period into a Talmudic text I love dearly – “the tractate of peace”. Much of this material appeared earlier, for instance in the midrashim of Bamidbar Rabah in response to the final words of the priestly blessing:

– “Vayasem lecha shalom” (And shall grant you Peace ).

We read the words of this blessing in Israel this Shabbat and in the Diaspora the following Shabbat in parashat “Naso”, and in synagogues during daily services here in Jerusalem, and on festivals in the Diaspora, as follows:

May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord countenace you and be gracious to you; may the Lord favor you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6, 24-6)

“Rabbi Elazar Hakapar says: Great is peace, since we don’t end each of our prayers other than with “Peace”, and we don’t end the Priestly blessing other than with “Peace”.

Rabbi Elazar the son of R’ Elazar Hakapar adds a surprising comment to his father’s:

Even when the people of Israel worship the stars and there is peace amongst them it is as if the Holy One says: Satan can’t touch them…see how great is peace, and hated is dispute” (Bamidbar Raba chapter 11, p. 302, Mirkin edition)

Having just read the ten commandments and knowing that Avodah Zara (Foreign worship) is so cardinal a sin, this is astonishing. Is Rabbi Elazar accepting Avodah Zara if it might be a source of peace amongst the people of Israel?

I don’t think so. But he is telling us that peace is to be valued so greatly and is so powerful socially that it prevents further evil from becoming dominant in society. The pursuit of peace is a Divine pursuit and can protect the people from the enticement of even Satan.

Leaders who use divisiveness and speak in terms of hatred for or delegitimization of parts of the society are making a pact with Satan, those pursuing social cooperation and law, even if their goals have lead the society astray in one way or another, are still doing God’s work in the world and are preferable.

This social quietism is not, of course, agreed to by all. Certainly social injustice must not be accepted under any circumstances, not even by those who see peace as an ultimate value, since peace without justice is not really peace at all.

The story of Ruth which we read on Shavuot connects the acts of Hesed (Lovingkindness) of Boaz and Ruth to the future redemption of the House of David. It is clear that the agricultural social justice laws mentioned in the context of this festival have redemptive potential. Their neglect or, worse, abuse, prevents that redemption. This is a central message of the later prophets, many of whom give social injustice as the reason for future destruction and exile.

As some of the great prophets say:

“ Jeremiah 6:14
They have dressed the wound of My people with very little care, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace at all.

Jeremiah 8:15
We hoped for peace, but no good has come, for a time of healing, but there was only terror.

Jeremiah 14:13
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I replied, “Look, the prophets are telling them, ‘You will not see the sword or suffer famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place.'”

Jeremiah 23:17
They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘The LORD says that you will have peace,’ and to everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, ‘No harm will come to you.’

Ezekiel 13:10
Because they have led My people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and whitewashing any flimsy wall that is built,

Yes, peace is a great value and is to be pursued but not one without justice, neither within Israeli society, nor in the relations between nations.

A false prophecy of peace, based on hypocrisy and disinformation, rooted in social injustice, is no peace at all.

It is a kind of Avodah Zara. Acceptance of an unjust society is an abomination. A society in which the poor are exploited and ethnic or religious groups are repressed is not a society rooted in the worship of God but in the false worship of wealth and power. The priests of such a society are not holy, the political leaders of such injustice are cruel and corrupt. They serve something other than the true God.

Rabbi Elazar would not have accepted a society based on that kind of peace, either.

We, too, should not.

May God grant us the strength to pursue a true peace – one based on justice, and on the prophetic vision that was revealed at Sinai and still awaits realization.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

Wishes of Peace and Justice on Pentecost to our Christian Sisters and Brothers:

We wish you a meaningful Pentecost and Join with you in the faith based struggle for social justice and peace!

“As we consider our place in our communities and churches today, I want to challenge all of us to remember and employ the lessons from Pentecost that are key to the work we are called to do in under-resourced communities throughout our nation. We serve a God who calls us to be agents of love and justice, and through the coming of [God’s] Spirit calls us to wait with hope, to go out and declare [God’s] goodness in a way that everyone, especially the poor, can be included.

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