Tradition Today: A message from the past

Israel is a society that is very concerned about its military strength and the threats to its existence – and rightly so. But we must not forget our values.

In ancient days, whenever Israelite society was morally bankrupt, prophets appeared who spoke God’s word and attempted, not always successfully, to bring about change. Amos spoke against those who oppressed the poor and called for justice – “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24). Jeremiah, in the years before the destruction of the Temple, stood at the Temple gate and reminded the people that they had turned that sacred spot into a den of thieves. He warned them that they would remain in the land only “if you execute justice between one person and another, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow...” (Jeremiah 7:5-6).
We no longer have prophets to remind us of our ethical obligations as members of the covenant, but we do have our sacred texts. And recently another text was uncovered which may have been intended to fill the prophetic role by delivering a message reminding us of our obligations as Jews.
It is not often that we receive such a message from our past, a message sent some 3,000 years ago, but this happened in January when Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa deciphered a Hebrew inscription on a shard dating from the time of King David, the 10th century BCE. According to Prof. Galil, this is the earliest Hebrew inscription ever found and indicates that the Bible or parts of it may indeed have been written that long ago.
The reconstructed text reads: “You shall not do it, but worship the Lord.
“Judge the slave and the widow, judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king.
“Protect the poor and the slave, support the stranger.”
Since the inscription is not identical to any biblical text we have, it is not clear exactly what it is. Could it be an early version of some biblical verses or some parallel text that was lost? I leave that to biblical scholars to discern. It is certainly similar to many verses in the Torah such as: “Whosoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:19-21).
It was to verses such as these that the prophets were referring in their speeches. What intrigues me about the message contained in this shard is that of all the injunctions, mitzvot and laws that we have in the Torah, it concentrates on one thing alone: proper treatment of the oppressed in society and connects this with worship of God. Any worship that does not result in proper treatment of these people is worthless. As in the messages of the prophets and the many such passages in the Torah, we are enjoined here to care for the widow, the orphan, the infant, the stranger, the poor and the slave.
The message was well timed. We received it when our media were filled with reports of infants and children harmed and even killed by parents or other members of their community, when we read about the deepening gap between the rich and the poor, about unemployment and the growing dependency of the elderly upon privately sponsored soup kitchens. And although we have no slaves as such, we certainly have foreign workers and strangers who are less than welcomed by our communities and our law enforcement officials.
I view this shard not merely as an interesting archeological discovery, and not even solely as another evidence of the antiquity of our written Scriptures, but as a wake-up call from the past, a call reminding us what Judaism is all about and with what the Jewish state should be concerned. It is as if the past were saying to us: Get your priorities right. Remember that worship of the Lord means more than empty words and rituals, more than synagogue attendance. Remember that being a Jew means more than pride in our accomplishments and our ability to assure our existence. Rather – in the words on the shard – it obligates us to “protect the poor and the slave, support the stranger.” Make certain that your courts and your law enforcement protect innocent children and the rights of strangers. That’s the part of the Torah that is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.
Israel is a society that is very concerned about its military strength and the threats to its existence – and rightly so. But we must not permit this concern to so occupy our thoughts that we forget about the values for which we stand. When social justice takes a back seat and comes last on the list of national priorities, we need an Amos or a Jeremiah to remind us what is truly important. Lacking them, perhaps these words from the past may serve to jolt us and awaken us to the meaning of our existence.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.