Shabbat Shalom. This morning, we read the parashat Shoftim from the book of Devarim. I would like to share a few words with you about this portion, how it relates to me, and the connection it has to my becoming Batmitzvah.
The parasha Shoftim means Judges, and talks about how judges should act, so that there would be law and order, after Moshe dies.
The children of Israel were nearing the end of their journey and Moshe understood that in order to live in a just and fair society, laws must be put in place which were fair and properly applied.
He also understood, that there should be specific people, responsible and trustworthy who should interpret and apply the laws of the Torah. He wanted the people to know that they must trust and obey those in command so that society would have order and run smoothly.
The sedra begins with Moshe commanding the Children of Israel to appoint judges to decide on the law. ‘Shoftim vshotrim titen lecha, bchol sh-arecha, asher Adonai elohecha, noten lecha leesh-vatecha, v-shaftoo et ha am mishpat tsedek’ "You shall appoint judges and officers in all of your gates, which the Lord your God has given to your tribes, and they shall judge the people righteously."
Then, just two verses later, we read the important words ‘Tsedek Tsedek Tirdof, l-maan tichyeh, v-yarashta et ha-arets, asher Adonai elohecha noten lach’
Although tsedakah is often translated as charity, it actually means justice, and hence this line translates to mean:
‘Justice Justice shall you pursue so that you may live and inherit the land in which the Lord your G-d has given you’’
This fundamental mitzvah tells us we must ALWAYS chase after justice and fairness.
Rashi says that the repetition of the word tzedek implies that ‘chasing after justice must in itself be just, and that those who do justice must act justly’. But what does this mean?... - that doing an act of tsedakah must only be done with a genuine heart and not with any thought of benefiting from it yourself.
The repetition of the word means that whether the justice will result in a gain or a loss, you must still pursue it.
The sedra goes on to describe the earliest forms of criminal law, laws which are still used and practised today in most modern societies. For example, if a person committed a crime, the crime should be accurately investigated with evidence from at least 2 witnesses - as in the courts today, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty.
The sedra continues by describing the different types of crimes that would be considered punishable by the judges, for example, idolatry, sorcery and murder. Also, laws were set up to decide who should be king and laws for setting up cities for refuge for those who killed someone by accident.
And it doesn’t stop there. Laws for war were established, going as far as to include, “lo tash-chit et etzah – do not destroy the trees’ when at war. And laws identifying who should not go to war, such as someone who had just got married, or built their own home, or vineyard, or someone who was simply too afraid to fight.
There was also a law made, to ensure, that before war was declared, the Jews should offer peace agreements. We too often hear about countries and peoples at war today; perhaps if these laws were observed properly, there would be more peace in the world.
After studying this sedra in detail, I found myself asking the question – how did Moshe know who to choose as a judge? Surely that was a difficult task, trusting someone with that much responsibility?
I discovered that a potential candidate to be a judge was tested in three departments; Intelligence, Capacity to judge and Torah knowledge. If he possessed all of these and passed a test, the Torah Sages would select the man as a judge.
I was fascinated when I found out that I have several strong connections to justice and law in my own family. My Grandpa Stephen was a Justice of the Peace. He was responsible for enforcing the law and making sure justice was done and therefore fulfilled many of the qualities needed.
I’m also very proud to say that my Uncle Daniel has just completed his training to become a Metropolitan Police Officer, spending his time detecting and preventing crime to ensure peace and order.
In the run up to my BatMitzvah I discovered a great deal about my family and the connection that our stories have to this sedra and the Tsedakah project I chose to participate in.
I also learnt a lot about the injustice and suffering of WW2, and I felt extremely sad that some of the laws about war that were written in this sedra were not taken on board. Instead, the Germans created their own kind of evil justice which resulted in the Holocaust.
I am fortunate that both sides of my family from Germany were able to escape and find refuge in Britain. My Great Grandma Lottie was born in Germany in 1914 and was a trained radiographer. The night of Crystal Nacht, the surgery where she worked was completely ransacked. She knew she must escape and luckily managed to get a job at The London Jewish Hospital in England. My great grandfather Bruno also had the foresight to leave Germany in time to escape the horrors of the Holocaust, but faced injustice as his business and property was seized by the Nazis under the new laws.
As mentioned earlier I wanted to do an act of Tsedakah to mark my Batmitzvah that was meaningful, as well as something I felt a connection with. I decided to link my BatMitzvah with Yad Vashem’s Guardian of the Memory Program.
Yad Vashem’s Twinning Program highlights the injustices that happened during the war.
As part of this programme, I have been twinned with a girl who was murdered in the holocaust at the age of just 9. The girl whose passing I am commemorating today never had a chance to celebrate her own Bat Mitzvah. Her name, the same as my own, was Libi Montal.
Libi was born in 1933 in Lubartow Poland and perished in Treblinka concentration camp in 1942. Libi had 5 brothers and sisters who were all murdered along with her parents. Libi’s dad was, coincidentally, a community officer trying to make justice and peace, just as we read in today’s sedra. I am pleased to say that her brother, Efraim survived and remains determined to keep her memory alive. He continues to campaign for justice, even if he does so by simply reminding everyone how his sister died.
I hope I have been able to do my part in pursuing justice through this program, even if only in a tiny way.
I would like to mention my Great Grandpa who I am privileged to have here today and who turns 100 in November. As far back as 50 years ago, Great Grandpa Louis did his bit for equality and justice, enabling girls, not just boys, to celebrate their coming of age by encouraging the introduction of a Bat Chayal programme for the girls in the community.
Tsedakah has always been an important part of my life due to my mum’s close involvement in various Jewish charities; currently she works at the charity Jewish Blind and Disabled. Mum, together with my Dad, always ensures our whole family is involved when it comes to supporting the charity.
Earlier this year, mum and I participated in a special BatMitzvah trip to Israel with SEED. This program aims to give Batmitzvah girls an appreciation of their role within Jewish History and an understanding of their unique responsibilities as Jewish women. This was an incredible experience and enabled me to make my Batmitzvah journey even more meaningful.
We have just begun the month of Elul, just before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Elul is a month of preparation and self examination, a time to reflect on our year so that we are ready to be judged by Hashem. In order to do this, we must judge ourselves and think about our actions. This sedra has taught me about meaningful tsedakah. I know that with the support of my family and the learning experiences I have had, I am now ready to take on the responsibilities of becoming a Bat Mitzvah.