Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I found myself standing in line with a group of tourists from another country waiting my turn to catch a glimpse of the famous Liberty Bell. Hungry and ready to be back on the road home to Pittsburgh, I was not entirely convinced that the opportunity to see an old, cracked bell was worth the long wait that warm Sunday afternoon. However, when it was finally my turn to see the bell up-close and take that all important digital photo memory of me standing in front of it, I was surprisingly taken aback by the feeling that welled up in me as my eyes gazed upon this significant symbol of liberty and justice.
In the Book of Leviticus, and inscribed also on the Liberty Bell, we read: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). And in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, meaning “judges,” we read the equally famous dictum, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). These are just two of the many times in the Hebrew Bible when we are reminded of the centrality of liberty and justice in Jewish life and tradition. To mention only a few more examples, the prophet Amos declares, “Let justice well up as waters, righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). The prophet Isaiah instructs: “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17). The Psalmist asks: “Who is worthy to dwell in God’s sanctuary?” The answer: “Those who live without blame, act justly, and acknowledge the truth.” (Psalms 15:2).
The pursuit of justice and liberty is at the very core of what it means to be a Jew. In fact, the book of Proverbs tells us: “To do what is right and just is more desired by God than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). In our world, where prayer has supplanted temple sacrifice, we may extrapolate this to mean that our work for justice and righteousness in the world is as important, if not more important, than the prayers that we say to God. We have a responsibility to the world, to shine light where there is darkness, to bring hope where there is despair, to pursue justice where injustice reigns.
This is not done sitting down. When we read the words “justice, justice shall you pursue” we are inspired to action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a luminary in 20th century Jewish thought, reminds us of this when he writes: “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it.” We pursue justice when we relieve the suffering of the oppressed, when we stand up for something that is right, especially when it is so easy to turn away or remain silent.
The author Elie Wiesel tells the story of the one righteous man of Sodom, who walked the streets protesting against the injustice of his city: People made fun of him and ignored him. Finally, a young person asked him: “Why do you continue your protest against evil; can’t you see no one is paying attention to you?” He answered, “I’ll tell you why I continue. In the beginning I thought I would change people. Today I know I cannot. Yet, if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.”
The original Liberty bell, which was cast in London in 1752, was designed to call meetings to order at the Pennsylvania State House, known today as Independence Hall. However, the bell cracked soon after its arrival in Philadelphia and needed major repair. Local craftsmen John Pass and John Stow cast a new bell in 1753, using metal from the original English bell. Then, in 1846, a small, hairline crack in the metal began to change the sound of the bell. The bell was repaired again and used only one time more, at a birthday celebration for George Washington. The bell cracked again and has not been rung since.
The time has come to ring the bell of liberty once again. We must not remain silent. We must not be afraid. We must sound the bell of freedom for all to hear, so that they may join us in our pursuit of justice. This will not be an easy task, but as the saying goes, nothing good is ever easy. We may stumble; we may fall on this journey. But, we can never give up. As the sound of the bell of liberty wakens our hearts, let it also inspire us to prepare our hands to do God’s work in the world.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)