A vision of justice which transcends status

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

There is a proverb that reads, ‘without vision, people perish.’ The Torah projects a vision for what is humanly possible. This week’s portion, Re’eh, is found in Deuteronomy, the book which emphasizes social justice, personal ethics and neighborly responsibility. Some of those responsibilities include not hassling folks with green cards or visas; releasing indebted servants along with a generous bonus for services rendered; and cultivating a caring aptitude for the strangers among us.

That Torah was on to something both radical and evolutionary. It presented a radically different game plan for improving the likelihood social harmony that was eons beyond its time. It continues to provide a vision for an evolving response to those who may look, speak and act differently. Torah continually provides a perspective of life in its own time, with a focus on practices that separate the Israelites from other cultic communities.

In the past 50 years, anthropologists, ethnologists, and evolutionary biologists have begun exploring the deep unities between cultures, not just the myriad of distinguished differences in ritual and custom. They are exploring the biological and genetic basis for social behaviors like altruism, friendship and reciprocity. They portray a human condition which very much reflects what Torah highlights; personal concerns for status, a human tendency to gossip about the same topics, feelings of guilt and a deep seated sense of justice and retribution.

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What they are also saying is that we humans are hard wired to extend our beneficence to those whose genetic make up is most similar to our own. In short, they are saying we share with our immediate family. It is much harder to share with others.

The Torah portion Re’eh begins with an oratory message from Moses. “Re-eh – Take a look at what I set before you this day, blessing and curse.” He goes on to explain, it is a blessing if the “wilderness” Israelites follow the prescribed game plan when they become landed homeowners and a curse if they don’t. Moses then reminds them about the specifics of centralized sacrifice, rules for sharing, and the importance of celebrating with everyone, regardless of status.

Biblical scholarship continues to help us understand where the ancient Israelite culture both borrowed and amended itself as the sacred library of the Jewish people was compiled and codified. Their insight adds evidence to the brilliance of our tradition. Where ancient people swore an oath to a person of status, Jewish people established a Covenant with God. Where ancient people prescribed justice based on social status, Jewish people created a vision of justice which transcended status. Where ancient people established the norms for their time, Jewish people created social norms to aspire to in all times.

Re’eh is the portion where the ancient Israelites are designated as chosen or, as I like to translate it, a precious people. Re’eh begins with a commandment to see what was placed within our reach. Torah inspires us to be a catalyst for change by really hearing a way to manifest social harmony. Proverbs underscores this: “The wisdom of Torah is pleasant and all of her paths are peace.” May we all find the blessings of her wisdom toward building peace.

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is the Jewish Care Coordinator and oncology chaplain serving Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.