As many of you know I have been “away” at my Rabbinic Convention this week.
The speaker for the opening session on Sunday was Andrea Weiss, Rabbi, Professor, and Provost at HUC-JIR. In a session titled “Biblical Texts for Precarious Times: Religious Values,” Weiss, discussed a project she started after the election in 2016: American Values, Religious Voices: 110 Days, 100 Letters. Weiss gathered 100 scholars of various religious faiths to send letters to the then newly elected officials for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Weiss is repeating this project for the Biden administration’s first 100 days as well. The purpose? For scholars of all religious traditions to show how our diverse religious traditions have something to say about our shared American values and to bring hope and unity during a time of hardship and division.
Rabbi Weiss shared with us, and I share with you now, the January 23, 2021 letter written by Mark Brettler:
Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,
Four years ago, after the election results were announced, I wrote two biblical quotations in Hebrew on my office door, so that I would see them daily, be reminded of their truth, and be spurred to action.
The first was from Deuteronomy 16:20, which should be translated as: “After justice, after justice, must you chase (tzedek tzedek tirdof).” Most English translations miss how emphatic this command is. It repeats “justice” twice—as the medieval Jewish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra notes, this doubling implies that you must act justly time after time, whether it is to your advantage or disadvantage. The word I translated as “chase” is often incorrectly rendered less forcefully as “follow” or “pursue”—but it is a very physical “running” word. You do, and should, get tired from such sprinting—but it is essential to keep running after justice and to call out and to redress injustice, wherever you may find it.
My second quote is more tranquil and aims to counterbalance the frenetic image of the first: “love truth and shalom” (Zechariah 8:19). While guiding the Jews to recover from a traumatic national calamity, the prophet Zechariah was an optimist, proclaiming in one of my favorite Bible passages: “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zechariah 8:4-5). But this new society must be based on truth and shalom. Typically that last word is translated as “peace,” which we so desperately hope for in these turbulent times. But its meaning here is “personal well-being” or “wholeness”—the main responsibility of government. Only through such wholeness can the young and old enjoy and benefit from life.
I believe that sections of all the world’s scriptures—including the Hebrew Bible, my scripture—have the ability to heal. May this administration use scriptures well, to chase justice and to love the truth, supporting the well-being and peace for all of us. I look forward to the day when this happens. When it does, I will no longer need these Bible verses as a reminder on my office door.
Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D., D.H.L.
Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies
Although Dr. Brettler’s letter was intended to inspire the current leadership in Washington, DC, his letter can also answer the very personal and individual questions for each and every one of us: What is good? and What does Gd demand of us at this time?
Kol Tuv ~ Rabbi Teri
To view all letters go to: www.valuesandvoices.com