I usually don’t give sermons about politics. I have been known to call out behaviors that I find objectionable, but it is my custom to never mention a politician by name.
And right now I am concerned about a behavior from the very top of our government that I find frightening, and which some 380 newspapers addressed on their editorial pages yesterday.
The editorials were the result of a request from the Boston Globe, which said, in part:
A central pillar of [this president’s] politics is a sustained assault on the free press. Journalists are not classified as fellow Americans, but rather “The enemy of the people.” This relentless assault on the free press has dangerous consequences. We asked editorial boards from around the country – liberal and conservative, large and small – to join us today to address this fundamental threat in their own words.
Editorial writers from across the political spectrum joined them. I’m sure you’ve read one or two.
This week’s Torah portion tells us in no uncertain terms that justice is paramount. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdofe, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” It is a central tenet of Judaism. And the Torah portion lists the restraints that should be placed on those who administer justice, and the person who leads the community.
When it comes to judges, the Torah says this: “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” (Deut. 16:19).
Judges are warned to pay no attention to a person’s wealth, or lack thereof. And they should not convict someone of a crime on the word of just one witness – twice, this Torah portion tells us that there must be at least two witnesses who step forward with the same testimony.
And the community’s leader, in the Torah’s case, a king? Interestingly, the Torah doesn’t put restraints on a king’s power. Instead, it put restraints on his personal life.
The king should be one of our own, not a foreigner, and the Torah gives the king specific instructions on how to live: “He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses… and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” (Deut. 17:16-17).
And then the Torah does something remarkable. It tells the king that he has one specific responsibility to perform:
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write a copy of this Teaching for himself on a scroll…. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching, as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate to the right or to the left…” (Deut. 17:18-20)
This probably didn’t mean the entire Torah; it is widely understood that “this Teaching” refers specifically to the book of Deuteronomy. Which makes sense, because the entire thrust of Deuteronomy is how to go about creating and maintaining a just, well-functioning society.
Did you notice that the king can’t have someone else copy it for him? He must make his own copy.
Writing something down is quite different from reading it. The process takes much longer, and each word carries its own weight. You can’t skim something if you have to write it word for word.
By requiring the king to both write and read the book regularly, our tradition hopes that the king is reminded that he is no different from the rest of us, that the same laws of justice apply to him as to his people.
We live in a big country with many layers of government. We rely on many different sources to help us know about our world and understand what is going on. Some are better than others. All of them – good and bad – contribute to the diversity of information that we can tap into.
If justice is a key tenet of Judaism, having a free press is a key tenet of democracy. As the Washington Post’s slogan says, Democracy dies in darkness.
So I’m going to stand here today and tell you to do something. Not who to vote for – that’s up to you. I want each of you to subscribe to at least one newspaper or news magazine. If you already subscribe to one, add another, whether online or delivered to your doorstep in the morning. I don’t care.
But I do care that we do our part to ensure that the press remains strong. Because we need them. And they need us.
This is a slightly edited version of the sermon I gave this Shabbat at my synagogue, Congregation Kol HaNeshama.