I’m pleased to share Jonah Kone’s dvar torah, Parshat Shoftim, from his recent bar mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.
By Jonah Kone
One of my favorite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” There are many places in the Torah like this where if you translate it literally, it really does not make much sense, or at least is hard to understand. The idea of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is in my parsha, but the rabbis of the Talmud make it clear that it is not meant to be taken literally, but is rather about atonement equivalent to the damage caused. I think this statement means that if you are immoral, or hurt someone, you need to make it up to them in a way that is of equal value to what you did to them.
This does not just mean between two people or even a group of people. It can also be a matter of a whole country. For example, after South Africa’s Apartheid regime ended, the citizens were wondering how to punish the people involved in it, the ones who perpetrated violence and discrimination. It was not appropriate to execute them all, like with the Nuremberg trials in Germany. Instead, they had to stabilize the country after its transition from government systems. Some were asked to go to public hearings as part of the Truth and Reconciliation commission. People who were willing to tell the truth about what they did and what happened were granted amnesty, which was a very different type of justice.
My parsha, or Torah portion, is called Shoftim, which means judges, and it has some really important things to say about justice. At the beginning of the parsha, there is the very famous verse, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue,” which demands that we all seek out and live just and righteous lives. Basically, what my Torah portion is saying is if you hurt someone, a group of people, or a country or state, you have to fix it according to how bad the crime was. For example, say I punch someone in the eye. According to my parsha, I would have to make it up to them and do what they think I should do, whether it’s getting them a seeing eye dog, helping him or her whenever I see him or her, or paying for their medical bills. One of the big parts of this process is compromise. The people or groups of people have to agree on how they are going to fix it. Even though the Torah seems to be talking sometimes about punitive justice, where people are punished for doing bad things, Judaism as the rabbis saw it is much more about restorative justice, where there is reconciliation between people, or the damage is repaired.
My parsha can also be greatly connected to the upcoming High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, because my parsha is all about justice and forgiveness and so is Yom Kippur. In fact, they are so closely related that before you go trying to get people’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur I would recommend reading my parsha, but it is very important that you do not take it too literally. Say you walk up to somebody you know on Yom Kippur and say, “will you forgive me for what I did?” and they say “no, you haven’t even apologized.” This is where my parsha takes part in this process and obviously, you would apologize by thinking, “What were the damages done and how can I fix them?” Then when you think of something, do it, then ask for forgiveness. If they do not forgive you, then think why they’re not forgiving you. If you can think of a good reason why they did not forgive you, then fix it. If you cannot think of a reason, then ask them why. This process is called teshuva, which is like returning to the relationship as it was before someone got hurt. It is not enough to apologize to someone in our minds or hearts, we have to ask them directly for our forgiveness. Traditionally we start thinking about who we need to ask for our forgiveness during the month of Elul. The month before Rosh HaShanah. Elul started this week. By the time we get to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we should have done the work of repairing relationships.
My parsha can also address the issue of deeper forgiveness because sometimes we should fix things that do not have a voice to forgive us, like the environment. Chapter 20, verse 19 of my parsha says that when you are at at war, “lo tashchit et etzah – do not destroy the trees.” Bal Tashchit is the main source in the Torah about our responsibility towards the environment as Jews. The Talmud says “anyone who deliberately breaks dishes, tears clothing, wrecks a building, clogs up a fountain, or wastes food violates the law of bal tashchit.” (hullin 7b) Also, if the Rabbis of the talmud new about offshore oil drilling I’m sure they would have included the current oil spill in the gulf of Mexico in this list. Say you are very kind and loving to everybody but you drive your car everywhere, even to places in your neighborhood. Then you’d have to think of a way to ask the environment’s forgiveness. Of course it would be unrealistic to remove those greenhouse gases you released into the atmosphere, but maybe you could make a new year’s resolution to not drive anywhere within your county, or city. Don’t make this unrealistic either, like to not release anything that’s bad for the environment. You don’t want to focus on the little details either like tomorrow I won’t drive to my friends house, because that really doesn’t effect the environment that much. The point is we need to focus on the big picture of changing our behavior long term.
My parsha is greatly connected to my becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Becoming a bar mitzvah is all about being responsible for your actions and what you do about them. That does not mean if I do something immoral I am a bad person because I did not act responsibly. It just means that I am then responsible for fixing it and that is when I would read my parsha and the commentary or if I remember it, do the process of teshuva I talked about earlier.
In conclusion, my parsha is all about justice and forgiveness. Justice between people, cities, countries, and even justice for the planet. As a bar mitzvah I hope to do all I can to make the world a more just place.
Yasher koach, Jonah! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Thank you so much for posting your barmitzvah parsha. My daughter's bat-mitzvah parsha is also Shoftim so this has greatly helped her in understanding the weekly Torah portion. I wish you all the MAZAL TOV for adulthood! best regards, from a small Jewish community down under, Australia.