Small Acts of Justice

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As we begin the Nine Days culminating in Tisha B’Av, the prophet Yeshayahu’s haunting rebuke in his book’s first chapter, that we read this coming Shabbos, reminds us of our past and present sins. What good, the prophet asks, are our ritual successes if we mistreat the weak and defenseless? This pointed question applies on two levels, both to individual practice and to the community at large.

Dr. Erica Brown, in her entry for 1 Av in In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, writes (pp. 86-87):

Neglect of widows and orphans is not a new theme in the biblical text. We are admonished in Exodus and Deuteronomy to care for the most vulnerable in our society. What do Isaiah’s strong words add? Isaiah’s point is a legal one. According to Rashi, the prophet is pointing a finger at a justice system where bribes are accepted our of avarice, and those unable to pay–like the widow and orphan–have their cases postponed to a later date. Because the vulnerable are not given top priority in the justice system, they stop using the courts…

An indictment of a legal system is ultimately an indictment of society. We all have moments when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us. We don’t do it willfully; we assume that someone else will take care of the problem. Growing up in a democracy, we naturally assume that when agreement cannot be reached between people, a government agency will step in and adjudicate. Our tax payers’ dollars will come through; a social service institution or charitable non-profit will pick up the pieces…

Every day presents an opportunity to make our lives more whole, less fragmented, more honest and less compartmentalized. We are all hypocrites in one way or another. We strive to be good but stumble. We aim for consistency but miss the mark. So instead of trying to change the whole world at once, perhaps we can make minute but meaningful steps to promote justice. Small acts of justice are the bricks of any future Mikdash.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

10 comments

  1. “Neglect of widows and orphans is not a new theme in the biblical text. We are admonished in Exodus and Deuteronomy to care for the most vulnerable in our society. What do Isaiah’s strong words add?”

    Besides Dr. Brown’s excellent point-Isaiah was probably speaking about what society did wrong-constant theme in Neviim don’t give me your sacrifices (prayer today) etc treat our less fortunate better.

  2. Dr.Brown wrote ” We are all hypocrites in one way or another”. This is rather a jaundiced view. And who is she speaking for? All of mankind, or all of Bnai Brit? If it is the latter it would be more positive to remember that while every Jew has to struggle with his yetzer hara,he has a neshama that is chelek e-loha mamash which gives him the ability to strive for the tikkun olam that Dr.Brown is striving for.

  3. Mycroft observed:

    “Neglect of widows and orphans is not a new theme in the biblical text. We are admonished in Exodus and Deuteronomy to care for the most vulnerable in our society. What do Isaiah’s strong words add?”

    Besides Dr. Brown’s excellent point-Isaiah was probably speaking about what society did wrong-constant theme in Neviim don’t give me your sacrifices (prayer today) etc treat our less fortunate better”

    Why do you think that the Navi is addressing anyone other than Jews whose Avodas HaShem is rooted in Mitzvos Anashim Mlumadah, and whose committment to Chesed and Tzedakah, two wholly different obligations, is not as strong as it should be? Do you really think that the Navi was addressing the surrounding societies? At the risk of offering a dissent, while today’s Charedi and MO worlds do have many problems to tackle, a lack of committment to Chesed and Tzedaka is IMO not exactly one of the issues where one can detect a shortcoming.

  4. We need to not just build spiritual blocks in order to rebuild the mikdash. We need to take practical,real steps to build the mikdash, including asserting full sovereignty over the Temple Mount and taking real steps to build the Third Temple.

  5. “At the risk of offering a dissent, while today’s Charedi and MO worlds do have many problems to tackle, a lack of committment to Chesed and Tzedaka is IMO not exactly one of the issues where one can detect a shortcoming.”

    Our perceptions are different.

    “We need to take practical,real steps to build the mikdash, including asserting full sovereignty over the Temple Mount and taking real steps to build the Third Temple.”

    Advocating national suicide?

  6. baruch- I agree completely that we must take practical steps to move the process of geulah forward now that we are bechasdei Hashem in the period of reishit tzmichat geulateinu. This includes Jewish sovereignty not only on the temple mount but in all of Eretz Yisrael.Mycroft-National suicide is leaving Jewry in the diaspora in the silent holocoust of intermarriage and assimilation.
    Another point-AIUI the Rambam in describing the obligations of the Messiah mentions defeating Israel’s enemies,and building the Temple. It seems that the social agenda of the prophets comes afterwards and is secondary to the goals of conquest and rebuilding

  7. Mycroft-look at the various means that Chazal use as means of Chesed ( Bikur Cholim, Halvaas HaMes, etc)and then look at their contemporary manifestations-WADR, I don’t think that Chesed is an area where you will find shortcomings in the MO and Charedi worlds.

  8. Building the Third Temple is not national suicide-it is a mitzvah!

  9. Depending on the government to provide charity is not a symptom of democracy. It’s socialism.

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