Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Building of Justice (Ki Teitzei)

Last week we read, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:18). This is a core principle in Judaism. A society that promotes injustice (like Sodom and Gomorrah) is dangerous and deserving of critique. A society that tolerates injustice is hardly any better. Ultimately, injustice gives rise to various forms of oppression, which recreate the oppression the Israelites endured in Egypt all over again. Pursuing justice must be the ever-urgent mission of those in Jewish community, bringing us from Egypt into holy covenant again and again. 

In a time before the word genocide had been coined, and before the devastation of a climate crisis could be imagined, Spanish commentator Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra identified what he considered the worst oppression. Commenting on Deuteronomy 24:6, he writes, “Employing diverse weights and diverse measures is oppression in its purest form.” Perhaps not the first thing we think of when considering oppression in the world today!

And yet, this law does point to the foundational practices of a just society – equality and truth. When cheating is rampant and even rewarded; when lies are accepted out of blind faith or convenience or self-interest or perhaps worse, apathy; when economic systems tilt towards the powerful and leave out those who labor to make them function, justice has been obscured by oppression. 

Deuteronomy 25:15 reads in full: “You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you.” Ibn Ezra comments on what it means to endure long on the soil: “For it is well known that all righteous kingdoms will endure, for righteousness is like a building. However, unrighteousness is like a ruin. Its wall collapses in a moment.”

Justice is a building, a foundation on which everything we care about rests. Oppression is a ruin. Rotten. According to our teacher, an unjust society will collapse in a moment, meaning swiftly, but that doesn’t mean soon. There is still time to repair, to do tikkun, to re-invest in our moral infrastructure. 

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are all of us in a holy season of great potential. The poet Marge Piercy wrote her poem “The Birthday of the World” for this season, echoing the themes of pursuing justice and fighting oppression.

On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding

of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.

No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?

How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where

have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke

the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling

my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

Questions for Reflection:
What will we rebuild this year, individually?
How do we hope to rebuild justice in our society?