Parasha Shofetim

We The People

For me, one of the most significant things about our first congregational trip to Israel this June was seeing Israel through fresh, bright and clear eyes.  Although I have traveled to Israel many times by now, there is, of course much I have not seen. Yet it was quite amazing to me that even the places I had seen many times before, I was seeing for the first time again!!!   Perhaps it was because I was leading a congregational  trip  of my synagogue (a real treat for me), or perhaps it was because of  the group of congregants I traveled with, or perhaps because of the exceptional,  enthusiastic and  fun tour guide who accompanied us on our trip. Or perhaps it was a combination of all these reasons. One place I had been before was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  Only a few years ago I visited Yad Vashem’s huge campus alone, by myself.  Frankly, when I heard that we were going to have a 2 hour guided tour by museum staff through the museum, I was a bit hesitant. Bruce, our tour guide thought that was a bit long as well, and told me he would ask if we could keep the tour to an hour and a half. By the time we left the museum, a full two hours later, it felt that we had not spent ENOUGH time there. The tour was riveting, thought provoking and poignant.  I felt like it was the FIRST time I had visited there, and was grateful that the docent who led us on the tour paid no heed to our request to shorten our visit. One of the last exhibits that we saw at Yad VaShem was an 18 foot rowboat.  It looked like any boat that you would see tied to a dock on a lazy summer day, except that here it was, sitting in a museum that documents the destruction of European Jewry.  Its black hull and oars painted orange and green sat silently against a wall of Jerusalem limestone just before the exit from the exhibits. The boat is a quiet, surviving witness to a remarkable, little know story that I want to share with you this evening. When Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, the Danish government reached an agreement with the Nazis to protect Denmark’s 7,500 Jews.  However, that agreement broke down in 1943, and word reached the Danish government that the Nazi’s had decided to deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps.  Alerted to this plan, the Danish authorities, the Danish Jewish communal leaders and countless private Danish citizens, began to hide the Jewish population. Danish police refused to cooperate with the plan, denying the right of the German police to enter Jewish homes by force, or not identifying the Jews that they found in hiding.  Over the course of about a month, Danish authorities, the Danish organized resistance and countless ordinary Danish citizens brought the Jewish population to the eastern coast of Denmark.  From there, they were ferried across the Baltic Sea to safety in Sweden.  Some seven thousand of them made it to safety in Sweden.  The small rowboat before us had been used in that rescue.  It hardly looked seaworthy! We were in awe. Then our docent told us a moving story about this particular boat.  Several weeks previously she had been giving a tour to a group like us. The group stood before the boat, much like we were on that day.   Suddenly there was a gasp from a woman in the group. Shaken, she told the story of how she had been a little girl growing up in a small fishing village in Denmark during World War II.  She recognized the boat as similar to one that had belonged to her father!  She remembered as a child watching the evacuation of the Jews from her coastal village to a refuge across the sea. She told our docent that what the Bible said was so true, and then referred to the Book of Deuteronomy where G-d says, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – a blessing, if you follow the commands of G-d and a curse, if you do not follow My ways.”  She said, “Our village did what was right in G-d’s eyes, and it is true – we have truly been blessed since that time.” Maimonides teaches that one of the central messages of the entire Torah is exactly this – that a person has free will, and that we have the ability to choose right from wrong.  If we choose the right path, our lives will be blessed. If we choose the wrong path, we will suffer the consequences. This principle however, is articulated very early in the Bible, in the story of Cain and Abel.  G-d tells Cain – “If you do what is right, you will be uplifted.” What is Moses teaching us in Deuteronomy that has not already been learned in the Book of Genesis? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that there is indeed something new here.  In the Book of Genesis, G-d is speaking to Cain as an individual. It is easy to understand that the individual has free choice. But Moses is speaking to the people as a whole. Moses is speaking to a nation.  Moses is saying that a nation, as well as an individual, has the capacity to choose to do what is right in G-d’s eyes.  A nation cannot therefore protest by saying, “we were conquered, we were defenseless, we had poor leadership, it was not our idea, it was done against our will, we could do nothing about it.” It is noteworthy that throughout Europe there were many individual righteous Gentiles who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem – its full name is “Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority – pays tribute to them as well as to the victims of the Holocaust. Denmark, however, is the only case in which an entire country mobilized its citizens to rescue its Jewish population.  Denmark, as a nation, chose the Godly path. This extraordinary example illustrates the relationship between covenant and freedom.  In our Parasha this week Moses continues to lay out the terms of the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. These are the rules and laws by which they are to live when they enter the Land of Canaan.  If they follow the laws, they will, as a society, be blessed. If they transgress, they will be cursed. By accepting the covenant with G-d the Jewish people freely choose to be bound by the standards and values articulated in the Torah.  All people in the covenant are responsible to uphold it, as it says in the Torah, “from the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers to the hewers of wood and drawers of water.”   It has been said that the Torah provides the first example in history where a people attempt to form a free society.  It is a society where everybody – of all stations in life – takes upon themselves the obligation to participate in it and guide it. Entered into in a world where the King or Emperor WAS the law, and often a god in his or her own right, Israel envisioned a society where all, even a king, would be subject to the law.  Some 3000 years before the framers of our constitution used the words, “We the people”, the Jewish People entered into a pact with one another where they knew that the collective choices that they made would determine the fate of the nation.  The challenge of how to govern ourselves is as relevant today as it was when the Israelites stood at the borders of the Land of Canaan and ratified the covenant that would govern their behavior in the Promised Land.  Today, as then, G-d has given us freedom.  We are called upon to use it to contribute to making our country a just, a generous and a moral society. Shabbat Shalom