Shoftim: "Scout" and Pursue Justice

It’s been many years – decades, actually – since I’ve thought about my youth in the Boy Scouts.  As I realize this, I’m at least a little surprised.  I was extremely active in scouting, including serving as a “Junior Assistant Scoutmaster” and nearly attaining the rank of “Eagle” when, still 16, I doffed my khaki uniform and went off to college.

Only now do I think back to those “years of yore” and scouting lore as I write this D’var Torah about one of the most important, best known, and yet most ignored mitzvoth in Torah: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We can speculate as to the reasons why this powerful imperative receives mostly lip-service from so many of us:  Our ever-increasingly individualistic -- and narcissist -- society.  Media bombardment of news and (even more so) images depicting world horrors.  The break-down of values-based education, especially religious education.  The middle-class struggle just to make ends meet, leaving little time or ability to “pursue” anything beyond a living.  

Each of these partly explains why more of us don’t “pursue justice.” I’d like to suggest this additional reason:  a sense of futility about the enormity and inevitability of injustice in the world.   What can we, as individuals, do about it?  Seemingly not much, so why even try?

Yes, injustice is both enormous and, at least until the Messianic Era arrives, inevitable.  But that doesn’t mean that we must view injustice on a macro scale and be discouraged into pessimism and inaction.  We can take a page from the Boy Scout manual.

As I remember it, the quintessential image of the Boy Scout was helping a “little old lady to cross the street.”  The “Boy Scout Slogan” was and remains “Do a Good Turn Daily.”  For a young teenager, this meant consciously seeking (or creating) the opportunity to do something good for someone every day.  I can’t say that I did so, but I at least often tried.

Similarly, the Boy Scout Oath or Promise was, and is:

On my honor, I will do my best; To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.  (My emphasis).

The “Boy Scout Law,” which I (mostly) remember after all this time, required me to be: “Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.“

It seems to me that the Boy Scout slogan, promise, and law are collective analogs for the Jewish mitzvah of -- the commandment to -- Pursue Justice. Injustice is usually some form of “being wrongly treated.”  If we proceed from the principle (Genesis) that all people are created B’zelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, and thus are inherently entitled to dignified treatment, “Pursuing Justice” begins with our being: “Helpful (to others), Friendly (with others), Courteous (to others), Kind (to others), Obedient (giving appropriate respect to leaders, etc.), Thrifty (not wasting our assets, which could be used to help others), Clean (respect for others’ health), Brave (Standing up for Others), and Reverent (recognizing that others are, like us, created in G-d’s image and therefore equal to and as deserving of dignity as ourselves).

Judaism teaches that saving one life is like saving the entire world.  I think that being helpful, kind, or even friendly to one person who deserves but is not receiving this treatment, is a form of “Pursuing Justice” in the world.  Helping one person, even being kind to one person, isn’t all that we should be doing, but it’s certainly a start. 

How to Pursue Justice?  Start with those around you.  

Shabbat shalom.  

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb