The Light of Justice

The Light of Justice – Rosh Hashanah 5762 (2001)

Today we celebrate the birthday of the world. Let us recall the story of its beginning:

B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim r’eit ha-aretz.
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,

v’ha-aretz ha’y’-tah tovu vavohu
when the earth was welter and waste,

v’choshech al-p’nai t’hom
darkness over the face of the waters,

v’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al-p’nai ha-mayim
the rushing spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters,

vayomeir Elohim y’hi or.
God said, “Let there be light.”

vay’hi-or.
And there was light.

Stirring words, compelling images. A world swirling in darkness and chaos, filled with nothingness. A world without order or purpose into which suddenly, God speaks, and there is purpose and order, and light.

This past week we have seen darkness and chaos. A darkness intensified by the lives that were blotted out, a chaos that swirls all the more intensely due to our memory of the order and routine that it consumed.

It is so difficult to grasp the size and shape of this horror. And yet grasp it we must: we must wrestle with it, we must not allow the evil that spawned such destruction to overtake our hearts. Somehow, we must rise up against the terror without becoming terrified – or terrifying.

Why did this happen? There are no simple answers. There is no single evil madman to whom we can point and say, “He is the reason.” There is no single word that will restore the light, no clear-cut path through the shifting, smoldering ruins to a world of peace. And let it be clear: the notion that we can rid the world of evil merely by waging a war on terrorism, by diverting our resources solely to weapons and security forces, is not just a pipe dream, it is a dangerous illusion. There are, bluntly, no simple answers. It is as if we are strangers in a new strange land, a land unfamiliar and unmarked.

Still, while we may not have a trail to follow, we do have a compass: our Judaism, which teaches us to repair the world, to search amongst the broken shards of creation for the sparks of the Eternal. We have our Judaism, which demands that we not withdraw from the world, but engage with it; that we not withdraw from God, but engage the Eternal in protest and fury if necessary.

We have our Judaism, which teach us to balance Justice and Mercy in our dealings with the world. Our President implores us to “unite in our resolve for justice and peace.” The Torah says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” – but what is this justice?

In its common use, justice means getting our due, or even more bluntly, getting even. “There ain’t no justice,” is a common refrain, meaning most often, I didn’t get what I wanted.

Our current morass is, to my mind, a perfect example of the effects of this self-centered pseudo-justice: extremists of every stripe call for their own version of justice, which clearly means, “give me what I want.” Is this what the Torah means by Tzedek – Justice?

Many years ago I worked for a residential treatment center for boys – some of the worst that the city of Boston had to offer. These were boys who at a very early age had developed such a panoply of problems that their chaos had begun to wreak havoc on themselves, their families, and their community. They were therefore sent to us, working out of a former civil war orphanage in the middle of rural New Hampshire.

Ours was a behavioral treatment center, praised by B.F. Skinner as being the prime example of the value of behavior modification. The boys were handled with a regimen of rules and consequences that were so elaborate that we wore beaded counters on our wrists to track their responses. We had padded time out rooms that could be bolted shut when the offenses grew too great.

Quickly, the boys learned that every behavior had a consequence, that each violation carried a swift and predictable outcome: an outcome that was impartial, almost mechanical. Swear once? Lose TV privileges for an hour. It was easy.

Of course, there were challenges, like the night three boys built home-made bombs, armed themselves with axes and knives, and holed up in a makeshift bunker in the barn. The clever use of behavioral techniques allowed us to shape their responses so that everyone emerged unhurt from the ordeal.

The boys had been sent to us by the Justice system, and we did our best to deliver Justice. But, while they were punished, while there was restitution, it was not the swift, predictable response to misdeeds that was the Justice we brought.

We brought them a Justice that was living, not mechanical. We did this by giving them the chance to see that they had choices, meaningful choices. We gave them the chance to fashion a new world of sensibility from a world that had been filled with dead ends and capricious powers. We gave them the chance to escape the bonds of poverty and derision, but under their own power, in a way of their own choosing.

Our Justice was the infusion of hope into an intolerable situation. It was taking pain, and making it predictable – and avoidable. It was removing the chaos from the darkness, and making it orderly.

Justice came when we said, the pain in your life is there. But there is also light.

Vayav’deil Elohim bein ha’or u’vein ha-choshech
and God separated the light from the darkness.

Vayikra Elohim la’or yom, v’la-choshech kara lailah.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.

We were Just, not because we punished their misdeeds, but because we made their world more predictable. We were Just, not because we wielded power over them, but because we offered them the power to navigate in this new world themselves. We were Just, not because they paid for their mistakes, but because we gave them a currency with which to purchase hope.

But what of today?

There is no excuse for the horrors of the past week. There can be no alternative to the prosecution and life-time incarceration of the criminals who perpetrated this monstrosity against God’s creation. But that will not change the world we live in; it will only remove the most recent evidence of the collapse of Justice.

If there is to be an end to terror, there must be an end to fear. If there is to be an end to terror, there must be an end to hatred.

If there is to be an end to terror, there must be true Justice. The justice that gives everyone of us cause for hope. The justice that recognizes that we are all made in the image of God, and that to deprive another of hope is an affront against God.

Terror, fear and hate cannot be remedied by raising armies to rid the world of evil. No, we must listen to the prophet Isaiah, and unlock the fetters of wickedness, set free the oppressed, share bread with the hungry and clothe the naked. We must seek out the poor, the oppressed, and give them reason to hope. We must even, as Isaiah commands, take the homeless into our homes, open our worlds to understand the darkness that swirls about, and meet it with the light of Justice. Listen to Isaiah:

“Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spirit spring up quickly… Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday. The Lord will guide you always, He will slake your thirst in parched places, and give strength to your bones. You shall be like a watered garden, Like a spring whose waters do not fail. Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins, You shall restore foundations laid long ago. And you shall be called Repairer of fallen walls, Restorer of houses in ruin.”

Vayari Elohim et-ha’or ki tov
God saw that the light was good.

Come, let us bring a good light to this world in this new year.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

© 2001-2007 James F. Brulé