As you might know, I am profoundly saddened by the Zimmerman verdict and within a Jewish context, it is quite troubling.
We are a people who have been the Other throughout our history, forced to convert, or pretend to convert, forced out of our homes and countries, having to leave our cemeteries and loved ones behind, having to leave our businesses… or else leave this life. Never feeling secure that we were entitled to be here. How different is that from being stopped and frisked or questioned because of your color or your sweatshirt? We know this feeling, of not being trusted, of not being valued, of not being considered fully human, let alone a person made b’tzelem elohim, with a spark of the divine.
This week’s torah portion, Ve’etchanan, (And I pleaded) the second portion in Devarim, the last book of the Torah, speaks to some of my issues.
Ve’etchanan is another of the torah portions where almost every verse is packed with beauty, with tradition, with something to talk about: Moses is told in no uncertain terms he will not be entering the Land, but has to turn over the reins to Joshua: it is time for a regime change. We have the restatement of the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. We have the Shema and the V’ahavta.
But I want to look at a verse that follows all this:
Deut. 6:18 Do what is right and good in the sight of YHWH that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that YHWH your God promised on oath to your fathers.
Do what is right and good – yashar means honest, upright, straight (in many senses of the word – like a plumb line, and honest dealing). Or what Spike Lee made a movie about: Do the Right Thing.
Rashi, the 11th Century French commentator, defined “what is right and good” as “compromising, acting beyond the strict demands of the law.” Finding a compromise that would allow justice to proceed, by going beyond the letter of the law to the meaning of the law. And indeed the Jewish concept of Lifnim m’shurat ha-din, going beyond the letter of the law, derives from this verse.
Ramban, the 13th Century Spanish commentator, also commented on this verse, explaining that the verse was necessary because
. . . it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior. God included a general injunction to do what is good and right in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.
As Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of today’s most eloquent rabbis on ethics, has written,
Jewish law itself recognizes that justice sometimes demands more than the law does, that moral duties sometimes require reshaping the law itself so that in each new age it can continue to be the best approximation of justice.
We have known since almost time immemorial, since Moses was talking to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan, that justice sometimes demands more than the law does, even our incredibly specific halakha, or ways to walk the path of God.
And we are supposed to exceed the legal requirements to serve justice, both on an individual level and on a systemic level. Exceed the legal requirements – do better than the law requires. This is different from the fence around the torah—all the laws put in place so that we don’t accidentally stray into breaking halakha. This is recognizing what’s right and doing better.
An easy example: it’s a requirement to give tzedakah – so going beyond the letter of the law would be to give more than than half shekel. (But there is even a law about giving too much, so that you don’t impoverish yourself.)
Another example: it is halakha to welcome the stranger, so to exceed the law, we have many ways we might go out of our way to truly welcome the stranger: work for immigration reform, for example; helping with our food and clothing drive.
But I am speaking about the Zimmerman verdict. It has been said over and over that serving on a jury requires that people follow the law and the evidence as the judge instructs. I know someone who over last weekend wrote a long note about her experience as a jury foreperson in which they KNEW the person was guilty of a violent crime, but that the prosecutor had not made his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Her jury agonized over their decision, but it had to be not guilty. She still has nightmares about it sometimes.
Her note helped me to not second guess the jury, while it did bring me to question the legal proceedings that I confess to not having followed all that closely. Because the reality is what concerned me was the racism throughout the process, because I am triggered by racism, as a Jew whose people have suffered the longest hatred.
We had a long discussion at the United for Action meeting today in which people expressed very strong feelings about the case and the aftermath. Our friends at St. Patrick’s Episcopal in Incline talked about their experience and discussion last Sunday, after I raised the possibility of some joint interfaith effort. They are interested in partnering with us. Others expressed strong opinions condemning violence and the perpetrators of it. But we all agreed that we could come together to discuss and pray about and maybe even take action about perceiving our neighbors as dangerous, rather than recognizing the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love the stranger, remembering that we have been strangers throughout the world. The meeting ended with a feeling of empathy and love and lifting the sparks of redemption from the tragedy and making something good out of it.
And this might answer the question of WHAT IS the right and good thing for us to do in this moment? Please come to this service when we put it together.
 Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, 2002, p. 118.