Go Beyond the Letter of the Law!
Votes for the Voiceless
*This will form my sermon tomorrow so if you’re planning on being there, don’t read!”
Have you ever worried about getting struck by lightning? What about getting struck by lightning twice? To have that happen to you, the odds are 1 in 9 million. What about for those like me, fearful of the ocean and a fatal shark attack? 1 in 11.5 million. How about something a little less macabre? For the gamblers out there in the world, hitting the same color 20 times in a row at roulette? That would be 1 in 1.8 million. And finally, for the avid golfers, getting that elusive hole-in-1, that would be a 1 in 12,500 chance unless of course you’re my uncle Howie, who somehow would get a hole-in-1 annually?! Don’t ask me how.
If you read those numbers and thought, that’s wild, those things will never happen to me, well, statistically, you’re probably right. Although I do hope if you golf or gamble, maybe you will get lucky. Even with those far off statistical odds, all those events are even more likely to happen than the one of the great bogeyman of our current political conversation: election fraud.
Election experts at the Brennan Center of Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute operating out of NYU Law School released a report a few years back, and found incidence rates of voter fraud between 0.0025 percent and 0.003 percent. The report, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. In other words, a good time to remind ourselves about Occam’s Razor.
If you haven’t been following the latest in the debates on voter fraud this week, we turn our eyes to Texas. Not only are the stars at night big and bright but also a group of Democratic lawmakers fled the state in advance of a special session called by the Governor for an election integrity bill. They did this because they see the bill as targeting people of color and members of impoverished communities.
Among other things, the bill prohibits local election officials from sending a vote-by-mail application to someone who hasn't requested one and bans drive-through voting and extended hours during early voting. In addition, the bill would give great power to partisan poll watchers, rendering them immovable, even if they violate explicit election law, something no member of a Democracy should want! In order to not allow the state legislature to move forward with a quorum, the Democrats have left the State in order to bide time and come up with an alternative solution.
It’s all pretty nasty stuff. People who by all rights should have a voice are having that voice squelched. That, I posit, is something we all should want to fight against as Americans, regardless of political ideology. As a Jewish person, I feel particularly called to this cause.
Every week in the Jewish tradition, we read a selection from the book of Prophets. I was privileged to get to teach them in-depth this year. In my eyes, the two greatest things the Prophets warn about are abandonment of God and poor treatment of vulnerable members of society.
In our selection this weekend, coming from the first chapter of Isaiah, we find ourselves vacillating between two tropes: lamentation and rebuke. The lamentation part of this piece evokes the the literal book of Lamentations that the Jewish people read later this coming weekend to mark the 9th of Av, a day of great destruction for the Jewish people. The line that follows is even read with the same cantillation notes of the Book of Lamentations, “Alas, she has become a harlot, The faithful city That was filled with justice, Where righteousness dwelt— But now murderers.”
Perhaps striking us a bit severe, Isaiah strongly condemns the practices of the city. This is a lament in the clearest sense. When we lament, we are forlorn over that which was. We mourn the past without much hope for the future. It is a useful emotional response when you feel at a loss for what is to come.
However, this section of Isaiah is also full of rebuke. So when taken together, It is clear then that this first chapter of Isaiah is a section on mourning. According to Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein,
“the rebuke included within is an expression of the mourning that leads to repentance; it is a side-product that expresses the mourning, but not the goal of the prophecy.”
Lament combined with rebuke forms a whole piece that mourns intentionally. It targets us to do better, to strive more, to aspire more to justice. We can’t give up because there’s more work to be done.
We see that expressed earlier in the chapter where it says “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.” These are aspirations. Bring more goodness into the world. Pledge yourself to be more just. See the disenfranchised, protect them, and lift them up.
Notice in those verses, as in the chapter overall, it is not ritual behavior that Isaiah is taking the people to task for. In fact, it is the opposite, “bringing sacrifices is offensive to me,” we read. “Your prayers are not heard because your hands are stained,” Isaiah declares. When our practices are morally or ethically dubious, God doesn’t care how many times a day we pray or how punctiliously we observe ritual law. It’s not to say those things don’t matter but when paired with immorality, they’re all for naught.
As I mentioned earlier, this weekend marks one of the more somber days in the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av. In their attempts to frame its root cause not in God but in humanity, the Rabbis came up with many different reasons for why this destruction of the Temple occurred. The one that is speaking to me this year comes from a piece of Talmud where Rabbi Yoḥanan says:
Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases on the basis of Torah law in the city and not going beyond the letter of the law.
Going beyond the letter of the law is a very powerful concept in Rabbinic Judaism. Here, as posited by Rabbi Yoḥanan, it was the thing that brought on the destruction of Jerusalem. It was that they held too closely to the letter of the law that brought about calamity. An excessive fealty to the letter of the law that sacrifices the needs of real human people is not what God desired in Jerusalem. God wanted goodness, justice, aiding the wronged, upholding the maligned.
Allowing people the chance to freely, legally, and openly participate in the democratic process was always taught to me as paramount to what it means to be a citizen of this country. So to look at some of these draconian policies that would seem to stifle the voices of the downtrodden seems to be directly in contrast with all of these teachings. Today being the anniversary of John Lewis’ death makes this an even more poignant reminder. Sure, you could argue that by the letter of the law, some of these proposed policies are constitutionally viable but then again, we know what happens when we get too focused on the letter of the law.
So on this Shabbat of the Vision of Isaiah, may we have the clarity of vision to really see what’s happening in the world. May we attune ourselves to hear the ancient echoes of our prophets. May we fully recognize who is being cast aside and mistreated. And with 100 percent of our energy, not .003 percent, may we fight back with the aspiration of the end of Isaiah today, to create a world that is redeemed through justice and righteousness.
Babylonian Talmud Bava Metziah 30a