The Danger of a Single Story – Parshat Shoftim 5781

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDGlobal 2009, bonus session at the Sheldonian theater, July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

A few years ago I was introduced to novelist Chimamanda Adichie through a TED Talk. In the video, Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Specifically, the author relays a story of her experience going to university. Her roommate was startled to learn that she, a girl from Africa, could speak English and also know how to use an oven and stove. Chimamanda Adichie says, “What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The danger of a “single story” is that we so often let one person’s narrative color our entire understanding of the issue or situation and don’t stop to take the time to actually look at all angles and facts about the story.

The concept of a single story and the problem behind it are not new; in fact they are very present in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim. This is a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, on justice, and on context. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot. We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder.

As these laws are articulated, the rabbis worry about a single story narrative. While judicial matters are being discussed, the Torah puts out rules for how a case can be decided. In chapter 19, verses 15-21, they lay out a plan. “A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can only be valid on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” It goes on to talk about false testimony and the need for a thorough investigation.

The Torah is clearly trying to work against the single story narrative. Our text is instituting a protection against a “he said, he said” situation where there is no research or effort to back up statements or experiences. 

Throughout history the narrative of a single story has plagued minorities especially. From the evil of Haman in our Purim story, to the horrific genocide and displacement of the Maya people in Guatemala, to the Rohingya refugee crisis, when only one viewpoint matters, it can have unimaginable results. One single story or one single stereotype of a people can bring epic destruction and lasting consequences. In a world where misinformation and falsehoods are easier than ever to spread, Parshat Shoftim teaches us to investigate, to get a second, third, or fourth opinion, and to remember that single stories aren’t the whole story.

Preserving the Future Now – Parshat Shoftim 5780

I’m not quite a hoarder, but I am a saver. You never know when an outfit might come back in style, or when you might need baby gear for a visiting friend. In addition, I always try to conserve resources and do what is best for the environment, the world, and even my bank account. I feel an obligation to create minimal waste because I know that what we destroy or use up now might not be available for our children and grandchildren to use in the future. 

This attitude about religion and the environment stems from as far back as the Torah and this week’s parshah. This week we read Parshat Shoftim, in the middle of the book of D’varim, which outlines our legal system, the responsibilities of judges and prophets, punishments for witnesses, and more. The Torah recognizes that the legal system and those in charge of it must be hip to the times.

In what are essentially laws about laws, we come to laws about fruit trees in chapter 20. The Torah tells us that when we engage in a war against a city and it takes a long time to capture it, we must not destroy the trees. When there are trees left over after a war, we can eat from them, but must preserve them.

Why do we bother saving vegetation in this way? It’s partly symbolic. The Torah is filled with the eternal hope that life renews itself and that while war might be happening right now, there will be a future without it. The Torah demands that we maintain a vision of a bright future even in the darkness of the present. We are the custodians of the earth, but not the outright owners, and as such, we owe it to the future inhabitants to maintain and care for what we have today.

This applies to Judaism as well. As an inheritor of a tradition that existed well before I came into being and one that I hope to pass on for more generations, I know it is my sacred duty to protect and conserve it so that it is still recognizable many years from now.

Letting Go – Parshat Shoftim 5779

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On his children’s television show, Fred Rogers sang a song (written by him) called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” He also used the lyrics from the song as part of his testimony in a now famous appearance before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication in 1969. The song helps children understand that emotions like anger are normal, and there are healthy ways to express them.

I, like other people I know, sometimes have difficulty letting go of a perceived wrong or a disagreement. If something touches my soul or digs deeply into my beliefs, it tends to stay with me. I still remember the kids in elementary school who invited me to a sleepover just to torment me. I never fully forgave them, possibly because I didn’t use the tools Mister Rogers suggests in his song. Instead, I mostly kept it bottled up and only let it out in other, less healthy ways. Having a memory like I do, I remember everything really well and have to work diligently at letting things go. For better or worse, my daughter Shiri remembers every last detail too, and I know where she gets it.

Everyone has their own process for dealing with anger and then forgiving; sometimes it serves our best interests, and sometimes it causes more grief than it’s worth. The Torah picks up on this process in Parshat Shoftim, this week’s portion, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, on justice, and on context. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot. We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. The notion of motive comes to light as the Torah discusses the challenge in proving intent.

In chapter 19, verse 4 we learn about a person who has wronged another in the past. “Yesterday, or the day before” are the words the Torah uses, suggesting that a quarrel normally lasts three days. After that, people can be assumed to have overcome their conflict. And if the resentment lingers, perhaps it is because the aggrieved party is deliberately prolonging it.

Sometimes it feels good to be angry, maybe because we feel justified in our hurt or because we subconsciously want others to feel some pain too. But if the anger lasts longer than it should and becomes a grudge, then it’s time to seriously consider the consequences. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that anger without healthy expression and grudges without forgiveness simply don’t solve problems, they compound them. So, what do you do with the mad that you feel? The High Holidays are just the right time to consider that question . . . and maybe sing about it.

Above the Law – Parshat Shoftim 5778

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Rules don’t always apply to everyone. There are plenty of examples in the home where decisions are meant for the younger set. Rules like “no ice cream for dessert tonight” might be what we tell the kids, and then I have a spoonful after they go to bed. Or it’s “no TV on weekdays,” except the minute they’re asleep Duncan and I can’t wait to catch up on our shows. It’s not that as the parents we are above the law, but it is true that as the rule makers we may have different needs, and we have the ability to bend the rules to meet those needs.

Laws, however, are different than rules. Our duty to obey the law is pretty crystal clear, and that responsibility falls on everyone the same way, no matter their position in society. In fact, part of what makes laws work is that they apply to everyone, with the objective to create a fair, orderly, and just society.

This week the Torah reading reminds us of this fact. The portion is Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system and specifically on justice and the context of the laws. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot (commandments). We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. Ultimately, it’s a sense of fairness and justice that’s at the heart of creating these laws.

Chapter 17, verses 14-15 raise the question as to whether or not the king is actually required to live according to the mitzvot. On the one hand, the king is not considered to be a god or of divine birth. Even though the king is seen as being approved by God, the king is also a servant of the people, required to uphold standards, solve disputes, and wage war if necessary. Verse 18 then teaches that the king has the responsibility of writing his own Torah scroll or having it written for him. It’s this requirement that reminds us that the king is not above the law, but subject to it like everyone else. Even the king must obey the words of the Torah.

We live in a world where all the time we see people in positions of power trying to overstep their bounds, ignore the laws, or try to get away with something. Whether it’s a teenager thinking she’s invincible or a politician skirting tax laws, thinking laws don’t apply to you comes at a severe price when those laws catch up with you. The Torah this week in Shoftim reminds us that we are all equal in God’s eyes. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, the words of the Torah still apply. We are all kings of our own castles, all beholden to the same standard: to uphold that which is right and just and to teach the next generation to do the same.

The Dirty Work – Parshat Shoftim 5777

The Dirty Work

When I was at summer camp as a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the chore chart. Every cabin had a paper plate wheel that matched up your name with a task that was part of cleaning the cabin. The tasks included things like sweeping, laundry, garbage, and table server at mealtimes. They ranged from the most desired (easiest) chore of holding the dustpan, to the least desired (grossest) chore of cleaning the bathrooms.

However, everyone’s favorite spot on the wheel wasn’t a chore at all – it was a free spot, which gave one camper per day a break to sit back and relax while others did the work. I’d like to think that taking a turn on the free spot was rejuvenating and good for my soul, though I know it didn’t necessarily improve cabin morale, it just made the other campers yearn for their free day.

A benefit of having a chore chart is that the cabin stays clean, but the point of it all is to teach responsibility and the value of combining our efforts for a greater good. Each one of us has a role to play. The Torah makes this point as well. The Levites had certain defined responsibilities to the people, as did the Kohanim and the other tribes. Every person’s job throughout our journey in the desert was critical to the survival of the Israelites. But what framework did the Torah provide as we moved forward after our nomadic period? How did the responsibilities change once we were living in a firmly-rooted and established society?

We arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. In Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that focuses entirely on the legal system, we read the commandment to establish judges and officers. We also cover a list of punishments for violating certain mitzvot, and we learn about laws regarding false witnesses and murder.

In chapter 19, verse 10 we read:

“Thus blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting you.”

This is the final line in a conversation about the communal responsibility to ensure public safety for society. The Talmud in tractate Makot uses this verse to infer that society is responsible for public safety in all regards, such as keeping the roads safe and drivable.

In the chore chart of life, having every position filled and accounted for is what keeps things running smoothly. But here’s the key: the responsibility for public safety does not fall solely on the law enforcers or the justice system. You don’t have to work in sanitation to do your part by composting and recycling, and you don’t have to work for ODOT to report dangerous road conditions. We are responsible for safety. We each have a role to play.

On a related note, any tips for convincing my kids that bathroom duty is in fact the best job on the chart?