Shabbat Sermon: Shoftim – Communal Responsibility

Living with a 9 and a 6 year old, blame and fault are important topics of conversation. It is NEVER their fault. It is often their siblings fault, or mine. Or just something the universe allowed to happen. ‘It wasn’t my fault’ can be one of the most irritating phrases when one is just trying to get the cushions picked up off the floor and put back on the couch.

This week we began Elul, the month that helps us prepare for Rosh Hashanah which is now less than a month away (please be kind to your rabbis and lay leaders!) Elul is a gift of time that invites us to take responsibility… to stand up and take at least some of the blame for where things have gone wrong in our relationships and in our behaviour more broadly. I often think of Elul as very much a private, personal journey, where I should try and make the time to reflect and begin to implement the changes I want to make real in the coming year. But I was struck by our torah portion this week, and wonder if it is designed to fall in Elul to remind us not only of the need to take personal responsibility, but to understand the role of communal blame.

This morning we first of all heard about some of the rules guiding us in how we wage war responsibly. Even dealing with our enemies requires proper codes of behaviour, and an understanding that we will not always be at war. If we don’t look after the resources around us as we go to war, we will be left with nothing to build upon if we are ultimately victorious.

We then hear about what do we do as a community when we can’t show who is to blame for something that has gone horribly wrong. A murdered body is found between towns, and it is impossible to know who is responsible. Each of the nearest settlements essentially take on a portion of the burden of blame (rather than doing what my kids might and pointing the finger at one another!). A sacrifice and atonement must be made by them, giving up precious resources because they have allowed a society to exist where murder is possible and in this case, has gone unpunished.

This has strong echoes to the liturgy of Yom Kippur. We have moments for personal confession, but we will also confess our sins communally: ‘Ashmanu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu’… We have trespassed, we have betrayed, we have stolen… The confession continues on, and includes killing… now while we absolutely have in this room a presence of many many sins, I don’t think many of us are directly guilty of killing another human. You could argue we have all contributed to human deaths through our behaviours and environmental neglect, but we are not murderers. Yet both this week’s portion and the confessions of Yom Kippur remind us we are culpable as members of a society where such things happen. We have created the social context in which murder happens, and must continue to strive to create a different kind of world.

The start of parashat Shoftim, which we didn’t read this week but which sets the scene for the whole portion, opens with the commandment to establish a just and effective judicial system. We are to pursue justice vigorously and avoid the corrupting tactics of bribery and favoritism. This portion, consistent with the entire book of Deuteronomy, serves as a sort of users manual for the Jewish people beginning their path as a nation, in their own homeland, devoted to righteousness and justice. And it is these behaviours that will make us holy. And that can also render us unholy if we fail in them.

Communal responsibility has been a huge part of our lives this year. One of the best examples of this is mask wearing for all and vaccinations for the young. Masks protect us from what those around us might be carrying – essential when the virus is transmitted through aerosols, but they also protect others from what we might be carrying unknowingly. I have a mask which reads ‘v’ahavta re’echah kemochah’ – love your neighbour as yourself, and for me that really summarises what mask wearing is about. It is an act of communal responsibility. I also wore it to my first dose of being vaccinated. In reality the younger and healthier people are the greater their act of communal responsibility in wearing masks and being vaccinated. The impact of Covid is, statistically, likely to be much less severe, but they accept their role communally in protecting others and passing the virus on to those who are more vulnerable than they are, some of whom perhaps can’t be vaccinated or can’t wear a mask. Staying home for months on end was also a way to protect one and make sure the health service could remain a communal service for as many as possible. On the other hand, we now also have another communal responsibility: to look after our mental health and well being – and for many of us, community and synagogue life is a crucial part of this. So we are trying to hold in the balance different ways of taking communal responsibility, and hopefully finding the right point of support and protection.

Communal responsibility is also a strong theme of the coming Jewish year – a Shmita year (if you haven’t already heard Mark or I mention it – this is a sabbatical year in which agricultural land is left to lie fallow).With no harvesting being done, communities would have to prepare together, and be ready to share whatever naturally grows on their land with all who want it that day. Shmita in many ways is a reminder of how to live communally and how to protect the vulnerable among us.

The Eglah Arufah, literally translated as the “Broken Heifer”, that we read about this morning is the ritual performed when a person is found dead in the wilderness and the killer is not known, the elders of the closest city or cities take a heifer and break its neck as an offering for their forgiveness and to establish their innocence. The ritual is an expression of social responsibility. The judges of the closest city are held responsible for the death because it is believed that their community had not provided sufficient care and concern for the individual who perished so tragically. Had they embraced this person with food, shelter, and support, an undignified death could have been avoided. Even if the deceased did not know anyone locally, it is expected that the community would have established systems to care for any passing travellers.

Passing travellers seems such a far away concept at the moment, but the Torah is trying to make a point about who we are as a society. When bad things happen, as they inevitably will, and blame cannot be attributed, we are all partially to blame for allowing such circumstances to arise. It can be frustrating to be blamed for something we didn’t have anything to do with, which my kids will tell you happens aaaaallllll the time, but in many ways I think this year has helped many of us become experts at taking on responsible behaviour for the greater good.

Perhaps the best summary of all of this is the famous adage from Hillel in Pirkei Avot: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?

We must all look after ourselves, but we are less if we don’t also look out for one another, and there is no time like the present.

It has been a privilege through this pandemic to be a part of a community that has taken such care to look after one another, and I know we will continue to work hard to find the balance of how we come together while caring for one another’s physical safety.

Shabbat Shalom