Shabbat Shoftim 5779 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon 7th September 2019

Imagine driving into the centre of town at rush hour on a weekday and there being absolutely no traffic jams. Imagine realising there’s not a scrap of litter on the street. Public transport running to time and a country so civilised that the most uncivilised aspect of it was the incredibly hot and humid temperature.  But don’t worry because even the botanical gardens are in air-conditioned domes.  Pavements? What pavements? You walk for miles in beautifully maintained, air-conditioned shopping malls to avoid the need to be outside amidst shops which have a distinctly international feel, the top brands from around the world but nothing with any flavour of being “other”, of being “local”.

I came home from visiting my sister-in-law and her family in Singapore flippantly joking that it was the most civilised country I’d been to and perhaps democracy is over-rated. However whether you see it as a benevolent dictatorship or a flawed democracy it doesn’t take much to scratch beneath the surface and talk to the house keepers, restaurant workers and taxi drivers to establish that such an absolute display of superficial civilisation for the tourists is definitely at the expense of plenty for its virtually invisible, less-affluent residents. Yet I questioned what is it that felt appealing? There was a sheen of calm and control as a result of a benevolent dictator which couldn’t feel further from the chaos that was Britain this week and it comes down to a question of trust.

The number of headlines that contained that simple word this week, “Can anyone trust Johnson to get a deal?” “Johnson says his opponents don’t trust the people.” And “Macron may veto new extension as trust with UK has broken down.”  Can anyone trust anyone in this complicated web of miscommunication and self-interest?

Yearning for something new in leadership when trust is not there is clearly not something new. The haftarah this week is a poignant gift of perfect timing, reminding us that all it took was a couple of corrupt, bribe-able, weak rulers to make Israel yearn for a new judicial system altogether; to turn from judges to kings in the hope of finding rulers they could trust. Yet the Torah portion read with the haftarah leads us to question what leadership we should be striving for. On the one hand (in Deuternomomy17:14) we are told when we enter the land a king will be set to rule over us and yet when we ask for such a king in the haftarah it is seen as a lack of faith.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing on Parashat Shoftim states,

“Even stepping back and seeing matters on the basis of abstract principle, we have as close as Judaism comes to a contradiction. (I included that introduction purely because I think we are perhaps more open and adept to seeing contradictions than the Orthodox world allows itself to!) On the one hand, “We have no king but You,” as we say in Avinu Malkeinu. On the other hand, the closing sentence of the book of Judges (21:25) reads: “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In short: without monarchy, anarchy.

So, in answer to the question: Is having a king a good thing or a bad one, the answer is an unequivocal yes-and-no. And as we would expect, the great commentators run the entire spectrum of interpretation. For Maimonides, having a king was a good thing and a positive command. For Ibn Ezra it was a permission, not an obligation. For Abravanel it was a concession to human weakness. For Rabbenu Bachya, it was its own punishment. Why then is the Torah so ambivalent about this central element of its political programme?

The simplest answer was given by the outsider who saw most clearly that the Hebrew Bible was the world’s first tutorial in freedom: Lord Acton. He is the man who wrote: “Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won … the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.” But he is also the originator of the classic statement: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Almost without exception, history has been about what Hobbes described as “a general inclination of all mankind: a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Power is dangerous. It corrupts. It also diminishes. If I have power over you, then I stand as a limit to your freedom. I can force you to do what you don’t want to do. Or as the Athenians said to the Melians: The strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Yet I am not convinced that we find ourselves in a situation based only around power for the sake of power especially when we have those dodging the bullet of wielding that power at a time where ruling effectively seems virtually impossible.  Tova Birnbaum, an American, Jewish commentator teaches,

“Parshat Shoftim offers an interesting insight into this issue of trust. In describing the laws regarding judges, the Torah says, “You shall not deviate from the word that they [the judges of the Jewish courts] tell you, right or left.” Rashi comments that the verse is telling us to obey the courts “even if they tell you left is right and right is left.”

We all understand the idea of adhering to the law of the land, but obeying authority figures even when they seem to be totally wrong? It’s a strange rule to lay out, especially since the Jewish people are not known for their docile submission….Like Rashi’s comment about obeying the judges even if their ruling makes no sense to us, the Talmud is teaching us an important lesson about trust. God knew full well that He was giving fallible human beings the power to interpret His will, but he handed us the responsibility anyway. He took His Torah—so perfect and pure—and placed it in the hands of decidedly imperfect people who live in a decidedly imperfect world. By doing so, He let us know that sometimes being able to trust is more important than having everything jive perfectly with our own sense of what is correct and logical.”

We have sadly all experienced that moment in the doctor’s surgery when we present with a condition that leaves the doctor flummoxed or when treatment “should work” but shockingly doesn’t and we have to remind ourselves that doctors are not Godly and they don’t always have all the answers.  Perhaps the frightfulness of this time is that our politicians are in the place that our doctors find themselves sometimes and that we have got ourselves, or have been led down the road, to a situation that nobody actually has a perfect answer to.  Promises that can’t be delivered, the perfect civilised life those who voted for imagined being created, a solution which satisfies both halves of a divided society. Just too many variables and no miracle workers.  We lob criticisms, we assume the usual frailties of leaders who govern for their own sake, corruption or ineptitude but actually maybe the issue is simply one of a lack of trust on either side.  No leader has the strength to say, you have been promised a treatment that isn’t going to work and I cannot do what you’ve asked me to do. The people are unable to allow their politicians the failings of human limitations.

Judges or Kings, Tory or Labour, Brexit or Remain perhaps our only learning is sometimes we have to accept our human failings, admit them and be accepted for them.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “To lead is to serve. The greater your success, the harder you have to work to remember that you are there to serve others; they are not there to serve you.”  Let us not look to win a battle but rather to say how can we pull together, leaders and their people, in healing a country in turmoil.

יהוה  יִשמָר  צֵאתְךָ  וּבוֹאֶךָּ  מֵעַתָה  וְעַד  עוֹלָם

May the Eternal God guard our going out and our remaining now and forevermore.