The Sidra Mishpatim is this week’s Torah portion. From Exodus 21:1-24:18, God has blessed us with legislation whose aim is justice and fairness in the lives of individuals and society. This Torah portion is an amazing amalgamation of material calling us to action. Here we see that right understanding of God is closely connected with worship of God.
We begin with two laws connected with the release of bond servants in Exodus 21:1-11. The community of faith is drawn into the tension between human rights and economic power. Further along, four laws related to damage done by an ox or to an ox point out concern for how one must control one’s means of production in order to protect the well-being of one’s neighbor. Although laws on oxen don’t get the justice juices of this city boy flowing, you and I must connect the dots in our post-modern age to see how our gross (and growing) lack of concern for the means of production, coupled with our lack of compassion for our neighbors has created a global marketplace in which injustice is goring God’s people and God’s created order more and more. We can never conduct our business or live our lives with disregard for our neighbors.
Exodus 22:5-17 speaks to restitution - acknowledging there will be no communal wholeness until reparations are made with those unjustly treated. Here Shalom refers to a harmonious equilibrium, but everyone in this room knows that social equilibrium is not possible in a community which is at odds and in which some are denied what is rightfully theirs. Sillem (the active, powerful intervention to right wrong) is needed when Shalom is knocked out of balance.
Further into the Torah portion, (Exodus 22:21-24, and 25-27) the rich and powerful are warned against exploiting the weak. Here, God is wrathful (vs. 24) and compassionate (vs. 27). But, in both actions, God’s attentive concerns extend into the economy. A marketplace cannot operate autonomously without dealing with the human cost.
By Exodus 23:1-9, the voice of Moses’ commitment to justice becomes the norm for the community. Do you hear this? We know that “money talks” in the courts and wherever power is shaped. Nevertheless, Mosaic law dares to insist that “powerful” voices other than those with money must prevail. For Moses, the “powerful” voices of need, of pain, of memory must be heard! Whether, bond servants, oxen, restitution for the forsaken, or changing systems which explooit the weak, these commands NEVER permit the separation of God and neighbor. These commands NEVER allow for the separation of worship and justice! (Drawn from the Commentary on Exodus by Walter Breuggemann).
As we come near the end of the this Torah portion, Exodus 24:3 calls people to respond with this promise: “All that the eternal One has spoken we will do and we will hear.” (REPEAT TOGETHER). In the sequence of words, first we will do, then we will hear. Although it seems paradoxical that Doing should precede Hearing God intends for us this message of supreme importance - Actions speak louder than words! In essence, God says through Moses: Hearing is not hearing if there is no action!
Is it any wonder that further on in the Biblical story, Jeremiah, upon seeing the actions of injustice while hearing the silky smooth words of worship, cries out: “Whenever I speak, I must cry out. I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ ... I cannot hold in my speaking the Lord’s name for within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones!” (Jeremiah 20: 7,9). Like a burning fire shut up in our bones, we must act justly. If the prophets Jeremiah and Moses don’t get propel you to action, perhaps the great American prophet, Mark Twain will inspire you to act justly. Twain said, “Always do right! This will gratify some and astonish the rest.” Why not astonish God? Follow the law of Moses! Do right and then you will hear God’s voice!
What may “astonish you” is that I was chosen to address you today, not because of my insights on this Torah portion, but because I am a pastor in the congregation-based community organization named BREAD in Columbus, Ohio. (Could our delegation stand at this point?) I became a founding pastor in BREAD almost 12 years ago when my Rabbi, Harold Berman of Tifereth Israel, convinced me to join the fledgling organization during a one-to-on conversation. He said (in his wonderfully understated way), “We have nothing else working for justice in Columbus. So, why don’t we give it a try?” He was right. “Giving it a try” was a great decision in my ministry.
What is BREAD? BREAD is “Building Responsibility Equality And Dignity.” When we say BREAD in Columbus, We say, “BREAD....Rises!” Through 11+ years of doing justice in Columbus, BREAD has taken action for the poor in housing, education, health care, street crime, jobs, and public transportation. We have grown in our relationships as well. Now four Jewish congregations belong to BREAD - three Reform and one Conservative. Agudas Achim, another Conservative congregation, is on the path to membership, too.
My wife, Susan Sitler and I often worship on Friday nights at Tifereth Israel. Sometimes we go to one or another of the Reform synagogues as well. Last month, my heart was warmed when Susan, my daughter Sarah and I attended “Shabbat Alive” at Temple Beth Shalom. Joined by members of Temple Israel and Congregation Beth Tikvah, Beth Shalom’s rocking Rabbi Howard Apothaker, led the gathered congregation in an evening of contemporary worship. I was moved by Howard’s leadership. Along with the other rabbis, I was touched by my friend, the poetic prophet, Rabbi Misha Zinkow’s prayer of praise. As I looked around the sanctuary, I was humbled by how many people I knew, many through BREAD.
Through BREAD, my relationship with the rabbis, cantor Jack Chomsky, and the Jewish community has become an integral part of my life. In worship, in actions, in prayer, in study, in dance, in music, in meal time, at the High Holy Days, in fellowship and justice-making with BREAD and also through We Believe Ohio, my life has been deeply changed by abiding relationships with Jews. We have developed a love and respect for one another which must astonish God and might even astonish Twain.
In your colorful JffJ booklet, you will see two photographs taken by Cathy Levine’s husband, dr. Jonathan Groner. Take a look. Last May, almost 2,000 people from our 50 congregations of BREAD gathered at Congregation Tifereth Israel in a community action. Wearing green and black BREAD baseball hats as head coverings (my wife’s idea), it was a powerful gathering of witness and testimony for justice. White and black, rich and poor, suburban and urban, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, Unitarian Universalist, Reform and Conservative Jews gathered together to end truancy in the Columbus Public Schools and demand job development for the poor. As I sat on the bema looking out at this gathering of God’s faithful, I thought of Amos crying, “Finally, justice is rolling down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream!”
My friends at TI were so proud of their synagogue that night. They were beaming with joy! Additionally, more than half of those present had never stepped foot in any synagogue before. The look of awe, wonder, and curiosity on the faces of men, women, youth and children made that night the most holy and spiritual experience of our life together in BREAD. Civic leaders and BREAD members and friends were blown away by this action lifting up God’s glory & power with God’s people’s making justice together under one tent as BREAD. BREAD... RISES!
But, it is not enough that BREAD rises. What about you? In your communities, how has your work built justice bridges between Christians and Jews and the community at large? Or are your faith communities suffering from prophetic paralysis and prophetic laryngitis? Do Jews and Christians only gather to “make happy talk” or do you gather to “make justice roll down?”
In my tradition, there is a story told long ago by a young rabbi from Nazareth. He was being grilled by the Pharisees about his approach to the prayer and action. Like all great rabbis, he told a story. We record it in Luke 18:1-8. His name was Jesus and he wanted to encourage people to pray and never loose heart.
The story is about a widow and a judge. The widow comes to the judge crying, “Give me justice. Protect me!” Although we don’t know what the widow needs - it is not hard to guess. Since she is a widow, her case probably concerns her dead husband’s estate. She could not inherit it. The estate went straight to her sons or her brother-in-law. She is allowed to live off of it unless someone is trying to cheat her out of it. One can only imagine this is the case.
The judge is not a respectable judge. By his own admission, he does not fear God or respect any person. Maybe he thinks that makes him a better judge - more impartial, or something like that. Whatever the case, God does not get to him. People do not get to him. But, this widow gets to him, at least partially because she throws a mean right punch.
Although the English does not show the humor, in the Greek, the judge uses a boxing term for the widow. He says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out with continued blows under the eye.” His self-interest for responding to her is not equity or justice, but conceit. He does not want to walk around town with a black eye. He doesn’t want to make up stories about how he got it. Anyone seeing how the widow has been tearing into him day and night will know where he got it. Since he cannot stand that idea, the judge grants her justice to save face. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, Cowley Publications, Boston, Mass., 1999, p, 200).
That is the way justice is granted, sometimes. It is granted when we BOTHER judges, elected leaders, and others with power, money, and the law on their side who didn’t feel bothered enough to do the right thing before we arrived. They don’t feel bothered by unorganized widows, orphans, immigrants, children, and those who are disenfranchised and poor. But, in order to save their faces, they grant justice. We would like to believe they do it for the right reasons. But, when they have no respect for God, for the law of Moses, or for people, it takes the organized and bothersome cry of those for whom persistence is their only path to break through injustice. As Dr. King once said, “justice delayed in is justice denied.”
“Give me justice,” the widow yelled at the judge. “Do your job! Answer me now or answer me later, but I will be coming back every day and every night - forever - until you deal with me.” So he dealt with her.
In my remaining minutes, I want to deal with you. I want to “bother” you. I know you think justice is a “good idea” or you wouldn’t be here. After all, you have given up days of your time to fly from all over the country to be here in Santa Clara. I know you understand the importance of the issues we will face tonight Action on Health Care at Shir Hadash.
But, I also know there are public leaders in your communities who, either through arrogance or ignorance, are not doing justice for the poor with the millions of dollars we have entrusted to their care. So, I am not comfortable leaving you feeling good about all of the goodness God has placed in your hearts.
You need to organize. You need to activate. If you do not bother them, they will happily continue to do injustice (which translated might mean “do nothing at all”). Like the widow in Jesus’ story, I have come to bother you today.
In the name of God, through the witness of Mosaic law, through the witness of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Abraham Heschel - stand up for justice. Organize! Organize your congregations. Rabbis - lead your people to DO justice! Words are not enough! Cantors - through the power of song, give voice to the cries of the poor not only from the bema, but in city hall! When your civic leaders hear the ancient Hebrew words of justice bouncing off their glorious pillars, they will know that the God of Abraham and Sarah has arrived to give them a black eye until justice is done! Lay leaders - don’t sit back and wait for the rabbis and cantors! Go and bother them. Do one-to-ones with them and insist on doing justice and not just reading Torah portions about doing justice!
I know from my own experience, some of your Rabbis and congregants will tell you what they don’t like about your organizing. They will tell you that it is not proper. They will say it is not polite. They will tell you to work behind closed doors and cut a few deals. You must tell them that you didn’t come out of slavery, bondage and the suffering of the millions to be polite and proper. You have come out to activate! Miriam’s song on the desert side of freedom was not polite! It is high time to bring Mariam’s tambourine and her dance of freedom back into our synagogues and churches and city halls!
Tell them there are things you don’t like. You don’t like vast numbers of poor people in your community who have no home, no health care, no hope. They are your neighbors and God commands you to love them. You don’t like your neighbors having bad jobs with bad pay, bad neighborhoods with bad crime, bad schools which too often lead to bad prisons. You tell them this gives us all a black eye! Tell them this must change and God has placed us here to be His special agents for change! Tell them and then organize them!
While you are at it, go bother the Christian leaders in your community. Pull out the New Testament and show them Luke 18:1-8. Some love to show you the New Testament. Tell them you have come to Bother them. Tell them “God has laid it on your heart” to stop doing nothing and start activating for justice. Tell them that you would like to do justice with their help, but God has shown you that you must act - so whether they join you or now, you are taking action for the justice! So my friends, GO and DO! And then Listen and Hear! And as you do: Remember our Torah portion this week: “ All that the eternal One has spoken we will do and we will hear.” (REPEAT TOGETHER). God will be astonished! Amen.