This article is a transcription of Robert Smith's Drash given at the Willsden Minyan Shabbat service on August 18th.
As father of the bride-to-be, I feel very privileged to be asked to give the sermon today – my first ever!
Our Torah reading from Deuteronomy this morning is about justice. God instructs the Israelites on how they should administer justice – and says that they should not judge unfairly. They are told that, by pursuing justice, they may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord has given them after their long journey from Egypt.
To our 21st century sensitivities, some of the transgressions – and the punishments to be meted out – seem more than a little harsh. Worshipping and bowing down to other gods is punishable by being stoned to death. The death sentence is also laid down in Exodus chapter 21 for smiting – that is, hitting very harshly – or even cursing, one’s mother or father. (I am delighted to say that our two daughters, Emma and Alice, have always been exemplary in the way they treat Judy and myself as their parents!)
One could argue that such rules and punishments in Deuteronomy were appropriate in the context of a tribal society which needed to establish its foundation and identity in the land that the people were about to possess. Today, Jews – at least, here in Britain – live in a more complex, more enlightened multicultural society, where each person has the freedom to choose their own path of beliefs within the law. And progressive Jews expect to question and reinterpret Biblical rules in the light of what we now know about the variety of human behaviours.
But, I believe, it would be a mistake to regard all of this morning’s Torah reading as anachronistic. The passage from Deuteronomy also says that the Israelites should not judge unfairly, that they should not show partiality or take bribes. These are rules that no one should really have any quarrel with, yet more than two and a half thousand years after Deuteronomy is believed to have been written down, we constantly hear – in newspapers, media broadcasts and increasingly via social media – that rules, where they exist, have been unfairly applied. And this, in our own supposedly democratic society.
But, alongside challenging injustice, we seem to be increasingly exercising our democratic right to challenge authority. According to this passage in Deuteronomy, we must observe scrupulously all the instructions given by a priest or magistrate who is administering justice. But the same passage goes on to say that a king must also obey these laws – as well as God’s teaching – and that ‘’he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left”
This seems to me to be saying that even two and half thousand years ago we knew that rulers should not get above themselves and that they were there to serve the people, rather than acting in their own self-interest.
The haftorah reading, from Isaiah, is about consolation or comforting. God is consoling the Israelites for the sufferings they have endured in their long journey from Egypt to the promised land. And it’s also an appropriate time for today’s Jewish community to be consoled, given that between the fast of Tisha B'Av and the start of the Jewish High Holy Days we have contemplated the loss of the Temple but are consoled by thoughts of spiritual renewal in the New Year to come.
And, for most of us here this morning, we have of course another consolation – Emma and Carter’s forthcoming wedding! And I have no doubt, from seeing how lovely they are together, that they will be there for each other when consolation is needed.
The passage from Deuteronomy also says that a death sentence can only be passed if the transgression to which it relates has been witnessed by at least two people. I think that’s significant because as well as ensuring that executions are not carried out at one person’s whim, it emphasises the importance of community – in this case the Israelites – taking shared responsibility for matters of life and death.
Jewish marriage is also very much part of that life cycle too. It’s a commitment by two people to share their lives together. But it’s a responsibility that also involves the community – as the marriage ceremony, like judicial matters, requires witnesses. I know full well that my daughter and prospective son-in-law aren’t getting married on a whim, but making their wedding vows in front of witnesses ensures their commitment and also echoes the sense of community and shared responsibility that is in today’s Torah passage, albeit in a very different context!
As I have already mentioned, the last part of the reading from Deuteronomy is about kings. It talks about the need for a king to revere God, to observe faithfully God’s teachings and laws and to not act haughtily towards other people.
I’m sure that the young couple who are getting married in ten days’ time will seek to be co-rulers in their own egalitarian marital realm. But should one of them seek to put the other on a pedestal, I feel confident that they would know their place, would not act haughtily and would want to ensure that their rule was in keeping with what God would expect them to do.
To Emma and Carter I say mazel tov. And to the warm, inclusive congregation here today I wish everyone a pleasant, joyful and community-spirited shabbat.