August 18, 2023
To Pursue Anew
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
To Pursue Anew
Rabbi Andrew Kaplan Mandel
As we begin the month of Elul, we are encouraged to blow the shofar every morning until Rosh HaShanah.
If the ram’s horn is an alarm clock for the new year, I have to confess that I want to hit snooze. Many signs point to a challenging road ahead. I can already feel my body clenching as I anticipate the Knesset coming back from its recess in two months, not to mention that we are just a half-year from U.S. presidential primaries.
So, I looked to that classic phrase in this week’s Torah portion—Tzedek tzedek tirdof— for some inspiration and direction. We often explore the appearance of double tzedek, double justice, in that verse. But this year I was drawn to the other word—tirdof, you shall pursue—as we try to build goodness in the world.
What does the Torah mean: “Pursue justice”? When I think of pursuit, I think about an urgent, aggressive chase for what you believe is right. It is the shofar as a call to arms. Maybe that’s what the Torah is suggesting we do as we confront the challenges of our time: Get ready for war.
In fact, when I look at other examples of the use of this very same verb, lirdof, in the Hebrew Bible, we get that same sense. In Exodus 15:9, we read of our enemies saying: “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoils.” Pursue is the first in a chain of control.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that a person who kills someone else accidentally can still be pursued by a victim’s family until the unintentional murderer reaches a city of refuge, a designated area of protection from vigilantes who are otherwise permitted to take the life of their loved one’s accidental killer. The Torah seems to accept when humans operate with the zeal of a tiger running after its prey, or the vengeance of a wronged victim.
This style of aggressive pursuit seems like where we’re headed today. I’ve read that more than 40% of Americans think they’re going to see a civil war in their lifetime. Twenty percent of republicans and 15% of democrats say the country would be better off if the other side was wiped off the face of the Earth. Is that the Torah’s prescription for pursuing justice?
Well, no. While I have been citing where the word pursuing appears in the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “pursue justice” is rare but can be found in the book of Isaiah. The prophet calls out to a group rodfei tzedek, “you pursuers of justice”—and then immediately addresses the same people with a different name: m’vakshei Adonai, “you who seek God.”
In this verse, pursuing justice is put on the same plane as seeking God.
While tirdof may mean pursuing your enemy or the person whom you believe has wronged you, tzedek tirdof, pursuing justice, means to look for Adonai.
Now that is a very different stance as far as I’m concerned because, when you’re seeking G-d, you are not in some panting, rage-filled hunt.
A few minutes ago, we closed our eyes and said Adonai Echad in the Shema. G-d is One. So, seeking G-d is looking for Oneness, for connection, not conquest.
Pursuing justice by seeking G-d involves going beyond yourself, loosening your focus on your aims and objectives, slowing down your instincts for what you think you understand, trying to learn the story of the Other.
What I find radical about this way of thinking is not that it’s a message of empathy. That is also important, but pursuing justice additionally involves a deep spiritual practice to look for our invisible unity, rather than be limited by the fact that we exist in separate bodies.
There’s an amazing project through NPR’s Story Corps called One Small Step, in which people of different political backgrounds are matched up and have conversations with one another, not explicitly about politics, but about their life experiences.
It’s rooted in contact theory—the idea that people who had been just blobless stereotypes to one another become nuanced humans after extended interactions.
Contrary to what you might think, those radio producers in places like Richmond, Virginia, and Wichita, Kansas, have been able to find people on both sides of the aisle willing to engage in these conversations.
The sessions are dramatic. I listened to a whole bunch of them—as an Asian woman told a white guy about her experiences with discrimination, or someone who described herself as “pro-choice” spoke with someone who described himself as “pro-life,” and I just waited for it to fall apart.
But, guided by facilitators, these conversation partners focused on understanding one another’s influences, hearing one another’s concerns, not trying to change one another, but asking earnest questions and making sure they could accurately summarize the other person’s point of view and where it came from.
Somewhere, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is smiling.
Buber taught that we must go beyond seeing another person as an object – of desire, of disdain, of domination.
There are times to get something from someone, to convince someone of something, to hold someone accountable.
But Buber asserted that, when you are in true dialogue, in true reciprocity and flow, when you are willing to be changed by the experience rather than simply trying to mold someone into your image, it becomes no longer simply a conversation with two people. G-d is in the in-between space.
I believe our Torah is teaching us that to pursue justice is to allow ourselves to find that sacred in-between.
And this can happen close to home.
Some of you may recall that we held an event at Central a few months ago with IGY, the Israeli organization supporting LGBTQ+ youth. One of our long-time members raised her hand at the end of the event and said (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m of an older generation. I don’t understand the use of these gender pronouns, when to use he, she, or they. I don’t get it. But I should. And I want to learn, and I want to be better. And I also need you to be patient and compassionate with me as I do so. I’m going to mess up. And I hope that’s okay.”
I felt tears in my eyes at that moment. I thought, that’s it. Pursuing justice by seeking G-d does not mean we have to agree with the person with whom we are speaking, or to give up on what we believe.
But it does mean to continually push ourselves to put aside our assumptions about a person, receive their presence, be willing to hear their story, and allow the artificial walls of our physical distinctness to soften. If we want this type of respect from someone else, we’ve got to be willing to do the same.
So let us welcome the time of the shofar. And when we hear its sound this season, may we not hear war cries and run to arm ourselves for battle. Let us instead hear trumpets of arrival, heralding a new opportunity to encounter G-d and one another.