*This series is an expansion of an article I recently wrote for the UMJC Twenties newsletter, which can be read HERE.
The Torah repeatedly calls us to stand up for the downtrodden and to recognize every person as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26-27). This is especially true regarding strangers in our midst:
“You are not to deprive the sojourner or orphan of the justice which is his due, and you are not to take a widow’s clothing as collateral for a loan. Rather, remember that you were a slave to pharaoh in Egypt; and HaShem your G-d redeemed you from there. That is why I am ordering to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
The Torah considers the treatment of strangers a matter of justice. The way we treat strangers reveals our gratitude to G-d for redeeming us from Egypt (or lack thereof). Therefore, we are further commanded in Deuteronomy: “Justice, only justice you must pursue!” (16:20)
According to the Torah, holiness is not some mystical, esoteric state of being. Rather, it is a way of life and a pattern of action. To “do holiness” is to partner with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. We are instructed to weigh fairly, pursue justice, observe Shabbat and the mitzvot, and protect those who are downtrodden. Why? Because the Torah states “Anochi HaShem … Because I am HaShem … and you are to be holy as I am holy (Leviticus 19:2)”.
We are additionally commanded in the Torah: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). Regarding this verse the Talmud asks:
“What does the verse mean, ‘Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood?’ It means that if a person sees his fellow drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him (b. Sanhedrin 73a).”
The rabbis clearly understood that when we see someone in trouble we are commanded to act. This goes beyond only when someone’s life is in danger. In fact, the Talmud further states that if we do not act upon injustice, we are directly responsible for not doing so:
“All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family … A citizen of their city is held accountable for all citizens of the city. [All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world (b. Shabbat 54b).”
From the perspective of the Torah, we must act whenever we see injustice. And if we do not act, we are personally responsible for the outcome.
Tomorrow we’ll explore the concept of Justice as Holiness within the Prophets …