Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Devarim: The rights of all people

1 Comment 26 July 2017

As Jews, we are commanded to help our “fellows.”  In this week’s dvar Torah to Parashat Devarim, Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner calls on us to not only struggle for the physical safety of others, but also to strive for the rights of all people.  

hand in hand

By Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner

This week we open the book of Devarim (“Deuteronomy “)– a book largely spoken by Moses, as he retells the story of the years in the desert (which are about to end) and a selection of the laws which the people are to follow once they get there. These include the laws that are really the basis of any modern judicial system:

“I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, ‘Hear out your fellows, and decide justly between any person and another – Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no-one, for judgment is God’s…’”(Dev. 1:16-17)

Moses also retells the command to the families of Reuven, Gad and Menashe: they may keep the lands they have conquered East of the Jordan, but they must help the rest of the Israelites – and in fact go in first – in gaining their lands before they may sit back and enjoy their own.

“At that time I charged you, saying, ‘The Holy One your God has given you this country to possess. You must go as shock-troops, warriors all, at the head of your Israelite kin… until the Holy One has granted your fellows a haven such as you have, and they too have taken possession of the land that the Holy One your God is assigning them, beyond the Jordan. Then you may return each to the homestead that I have assigned to you.’”

Those of us in Israel often like to quote this text (or its parallel in Numbers) in telling our fellow Jews in other countries that they ought to be fighting alongside us (literally or figuratively) for Israel’s safety and stability. But perhaps, if we read this story together with the command of equality for all before the law, we can see a further possible message from the text.

Those of us who already have homes and property; those of us who already have access to more than the basic necessities; who have access to justice, to rights, to privilege – must take upon ourselves to fight for those same things for others, and in fact to be the “shocktroops” – the leaders and the front lines in the “battle” to ensure the rights of others. Only when these are successfully gained do we really have the right to enjoy them ourselves. This applies not only to our “fellows” – those who are like us (in terms of religion or nationality, colour, economic status, education level, physical ability, or gender). While rights are denied to some, then there is still work to do for us all. Fear no-one, for judgment is God’s.

Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights 

Read previous Torah commentary here

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1 comment

  1. Philip McFedries says:

    Here is a deeper wisdom than is found in any news bulletin or analysis of events.

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