Justice: Where the Torah's moral arc bends

Justice: Where the Torah's moral arc bends

International Women's Day Protest for Justice, Barcelona 2007The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

So said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

But this arc doesn’t really look like an arc at all. More like a very jiggly line graph with lots of ups and downs. Trending upwards.

The moral arc of the Torah is long, too, and it bends towards justice. Justice, reconciliation, compromise. I’m not talking about the rules — most of these clearly state principles of justice. I’m talking about the stories of people and what they actually do.

Watch the arc of the stories as they cross chapters, parshiyot, and books. Watch them as they stop and restart — like stories do in real life. Find the dots, the breadcrumbs, the trail of sparks. Imagine Torah as a map of the universe. Everywhere are little nodes of justice that begin to connect.

When the Israelites stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God said: don’t make life difficult for widows and orphans (Ex. 22:21). Take care of single mothers and their children. Feed them, protect them, do not oppress them. Because they are economically vulnerable.

How vulnerable? Torah tells us exactly. Women earn 60% of what men earn, for the same work.

Did you miss that detail? It’s on the very last page of the book of Vayikra-Leviticus (Lev. 27). Say you have an amazing spiritual experience. So you vow to volunteer at the national spiritual centre, the mishkan, for a year. But when you come down from the high you remember. You have a job and a family. You cannot actually help at the mishkan.

No problem! Just buy out your contract. Pay the mishkan the value of your labour. How much do you owe? If you’re a female, you owe 3/5 of what a male of the same age owes. Whether you’re a three year old helping set the table or a 40 year old helping with accounting. I am not making this up. It’s right there.

So it’s no wonder that five women – five young single orphans – reach their breaking point. One day, Moshe announces how land will be distributed clan by clan – to the men (Num. 26:54-57). So these five women organize a huge political demonstration in front of the mishkan (Num. 27:1-4).

Their petition is specific. Orphaned women with no brothers should be allowed to inherit their father’s land. Why? To preserve the father’s lineage, they say. But we know the real reason. Without resources, a woman is forced to choose between poverty and a desperate marriage.

In a flash, Moshe gets it. Divine inspiration fills him. The women are right, he announces, God says so.

Of course God says so! God already said so at Mt. Sinai. But implementation is slow. Step by step. Case by case. Demonstration by demonstration.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

You could argue that this is the main message of the Torah.

Prepared as a dvar Torah offered at the ALEPH Kallah.

  1. That’s because justice is not enough, you need mercy to move the arc forwards.
    Shabbat Shalom, ori.

    1. Beautiful, thank you, Ori. I love the idea that Moshe’s compassion is aroused here. Case by case.

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