This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.
Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.
God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.
Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.
To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.
That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.
As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?
The answer is ‘everything’:
Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)
In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:
If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)
That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.
There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.