Parshat Shoftim: The guilty conscience of the world

Unfortunately we suffer because we are not fulfilling our mission to teach the nations.

madoff faces media 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
madoff faces media 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
"Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, in order that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God has given to you" (Deuteronomy 16:20). If Judaism had a mission statement, what might it be? How should we guide our actions? How can we sort out the incidental from the essence so that the ideas and ideals to which we bear witness (as Isaiah teaches, "You are My witnesses," says God) do not get lost in the latest scandal threatening to undermine our exalted mission? Furthermore, is there a connection between the vocation ("calling") of Israel and the tear-stained, blood-soaked history of our nation, between the "curses" we experienced at the destruction of both Temples and the anti-Semitic persecutions of our long exile, continuing today with the losses we suffer in war and terrorist attacks? Why has Israel as a nation not known a day of genuine peace since its rebirth 61 years ago? I feel hounded by these questions because of images which keep returning to my mind. First the beautiful, gentle and innocent face of Uriel Liwerant of blessed memory, his clear and sensitive eyes framed by slightly lop-sided glasses, his humble, bashful smile, and his quick and steady mind dedicated to the study of Torah. Uriel was a beloved child of Efrat, a 21-year-old tank commander who was killed when his tank overturned while crossing a bridge during a military training maneuver. And then other images, clashing with the sweet goodness of Uriel, plague my mind, people who should never be mentioned in the same sentence as Uriel. I'm speaking of the latest violator of a great public trust, Bernard Madoff, with his baseball cap and supercilious smile, arguably among the worst scoundrels of all time. And just several weeks ago we witnessed rabbis from New Jersey being taken away by the FBI for money-laundering and fraud perpetrated through talmudic institutions they headed. And here in Israel a prominent leader of a major religious political party, bearing the title of rabbi, is sentenced to a lengthy prison term for accepting bribes and violating the public trust. I feel tainted and ashamed, embarrassed. The verse quoted above about the pursuit of righteousness must guide our steps. We must return to basics and understand why God "elected" us in the first place. Who was the first truly righteous man in the Torah? Abraham was not chosen because he was a rich sheep owner, or because he had a brilliant mind. "...I have known, loved and appointed [Abraham] in order that he command his children and household after him to observe the way of the Lord, which is to do compassionate righteousness [tzedaka] and moral justice [mishpat]." This is why God promised to "make of Abraham a great and powerful nation through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed" (Genesis 18:18,19). If we have any doubt as to Abraham's "mission," all we have to do is turn to the following verse and note that the subject is the ethical and moral corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah, the direct cause of their destruction. Clearly, what God expects of Abraham and his descendants is to teach compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the world: Only if these principles of ethical action become the sacred legacy of humanity will the nations be blessed with freedom and peace, secure in their knowledge that belligerence and selfishness have been replaced by conciliation and generosity. Israel's "mission" is repeated right before God enters into a covenant with His nation and reveals the Ten Commandments of universal morality: "And now, if you shall internalize, indeed internalize My voice and observe My covenant, you shall be for Me a treasure from among all nations; for the entire earth is Mine. You must be for Me a kingdom of priest teachers and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5,6; see S'forno ad loc). Our covenantal position in the world - indeed the very continued existence of the world - depends on our success in bringing these values to the nations. And it's basic common sense that if we ourselves do not display the moral courage of these ideals, we will not be able to teach them to the world! The Bible warns us twice, in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, (warnings which Nahmanides identifies as prophecies of the destruction of the two Temples) that if we reject this ethical covenant, we will have to suffer at the hands of the nations we were unable to teach. Isaiah declares that God despises our attentiveness to ritual if we turn a blind eye to the widow and the orphan. He rejects the prayers of "observant" Jews whose hands are filled with blood or ill-gotten gains. "Learn well: seek moral justice, straighten out world corruption, judge the orphan, plead the case for the widow... Zion shall be redeemed [only] by means of moral justice, and her residents will return only by means of righteous compassion" - tzedaka u-mishpat, the two virtues which were the basis for Abraham's initial election. Hence, when Isaiah calls on Israel to rouse itself, to bedeck itself in the garments of Zion's glory, to shake off the dust (of exile), arise and return to Jerusalem (Isaiah 52), he also admonishes Israel to understand that it is the suffering servant, scorned and bereft and hurt, covered in ashes, racked with suffering; bearing the world's iniquities, the sores that come from a willingness to suffer evil and ignore the violation of the innocent (Isaiah 53). Israel is the heart of the world, its conscience. Unfortunately we suffer because we did not - and are not - fulfilling our mission to teach the nations. And now even the best of us are under the illusion that being religious means eating a Shabbat cholent after synagogue or attending a concert with separate seating. The prophet Jeremiah tells us what we must honor: "Thus says the Lord: do not praise the wise person for his wisdom; do not praise the strong person for his strength; do not praise the wealthy person for his wealth. But for this shall be praised the praiseworthy: understand and know Me, because I am the Lord who does lovingkindness, moral justice and compassionate righteousness on earth, because it is these that I love, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:22,23). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.