By Rabbi Michael Berk
I associate the rallying call “law and order” with right-leaning politicians of the 1960s, especially Richard Nixon. The phrase conveyed resolve and passion about ending the constant upheavals that characterized that decade. And it has popped up again from time to time; most recently from our current president, who has declared that he is or aspires to be a “law and order president.” His reaction to the social unrest has invoked the language of domination, armed, even military strength, and toughness.
Unfortunate, he’s got the wrong motto in mind, especially to help America deal with the current uncertainty, fear, tumult, and social issues that are weighing so heavily on our battered society.
We don’t need a law and order president. We need a justice and righteousness president.
I’ve never heard “justice and righteousness” used in the American political lexicon the way I’m using it, but it is a biblical phrase. Let me tell you where it comes from.
After the debacles in the opening chapters of Genesis (the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden; Cain murdering Abel; the depths that humanity sank to in the generation of the flood; the sin of the Tower of Babel), the Bible paints a picture of a sad and depressed God.
God reached the conclusion that he needed to change strategies, and that’s when we meet Abraham. Giving up on working with humanity as a whole, God selected Abraham to spread the word that there is only one God. Did you ever wonder why? The Bible does not offer much to answer this question. As a rule the Bible doesn’t tell us about it’s characters and heroes; and so it’s not surprising that it’s silent about what it is God saw in Abraham that convinced God he would be a good messenger. But there’s a hint! For that we turn to Genesis, chapter 18, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The story begins with messengers of God coming to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they will have a child — Issac. God also came to tell Abraham what He had in mind for Sodom and Gemorrah. This was a place so steeped in evil that the cry of suffering from all the injustice and cruelty that rose from that place reached God. He couldn’t abide it, and decided to kill all the people there.
As God considers broaching the subject, He reflects that Abraham is going to teach his children and the rest of the world about “doing what is right and just” — or more faithful to the Hebrew, “justice and righteousness.” The phrase first appears here, and it means “ethics and morality.” In other words, God already knows that Abraham is a good person who will teach others about justice and righteousness. God wants Abraham to be His advisor because he is an expert of morality and ethics.
What did Abraham do when God told him His plan? Abraham “drew near to God and spoke up.” Think about that for a moment; let it sink in. God, the creator of zebras and Jupiter, announces his intentions, and Abraham, standing tall, steps forward to argue with Him! With that, human history was changed. No human being ever defied a ruler like that and lived. And God doesn’t tell Abraham to shut up! God doesn’t say, Who do you think you are talking to Me that way? God wasn’t looking for a sycophant. God was looking for an argument. Lots of people loved God. But Abraham knows that to love God means to do justice and righteousness. That’s why God invited Abraham to argue with Him, the King of Kings.
Justice and righteousness is not just a value like others. For all who consider Abraham a father of their faith, it is an essential, foundational idea of the Bible. Abraham got God’s attention because he was an expert in justice and righteousness (ethics and morality) and that is what all future believers in God were supposed to be devoted to. That’s what it would mean for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to “walk in the ways of the Lord.”
What does Abraham argue? He accuses God of what we call collective punishment; penalizing the innocent along with the guilty. Abraham tells God that’s not moral. Let me repeat that: Abraham tells God that what God was intending to do was immoral. And God did not smite him!
When Abraham stepped forward to argue with God, he charted a new course in human history. Before Abraham, everyone was like Caine, who famously shrugged off God’s inquiry about the whereabouts of Abel by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Noah also was stuck in this low level of morality. His immediate assent, without objection, to God’s plan for him to build an ark to save himself as God destroyed all other life on the planet, betrays his belief that he didn’t live in a world where the fact of “others” alters his behavior. This minimal ethical thinking is known as “do no harm;” meaning I’m behaving ethically as long as I’m not harming others. Abraham takes moral thinking to a new level. It’s not enough to “do no harm.” Abraham introduced the idea that our lives are shaped in the midst of other people. I am obligated not only to do no harm; I am obligated to help others.
A long time after Abraham, his descendants were enslaved under the burden of Pharaoh’s cruelty and indifference. They cried aloud for justice and righteousness. Pharaoh was calling out for law and order. Which cry did God hear? The cry of the oppressed; the cry that Pharaoh didn’t hear.
President Trump is calling for law and order. Another cry is going up from our land. It is a cry for justice and righteousness. Which do you think God hears? Which are we going to hear?
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.
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