NFTY leaders from the Chicago Area, Michigan, Missouri Valley, Northeast Lakes, Northern, and Ohio Valley regions collaborated at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, IN, for the inaugural Midwest Mash-up Leadership Boot Camp event. Melissa Frey, director of Kutz Camp and associate director of NFTY, delivered the d’var torah based on parasha Shoftim.
Just a week ago, I was at a place many of us have called home, the URJ’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. I was working with our staff preparing camp for impending Hurricane Irene, when I received a call that the EIE Fall semester departure flight had been cancelled because of the storm. That was Saturday. Their flight would not be rebooked until Wednesday. Late Monday afternoon, once the storm had passed and the roads were clear, we bused close to twenty of the thrity-five teens to Kutz to await their departure.
We saw this as a remarkable opportunity to create camp for 30 hours, before their journey to the Holy Land. So we pulled together programming and tefilah, and had some terrific discussions, some even rooted in this week’s parasha, Shoftim. While studying this particular text, the iconic phrase, “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue,” caught one teen’s eye. And half joking she quipped, “Where’s the justice in our trip being postponed?” I couldn’t help but empathize and even agree.
In Shoftim, we learn that there are actually five different kinds of justice. And while each is defined in its biblical interpretation, each can also be applied to our NFTY community, and our role as leaders within this community.
The first kind of justice – Rules of Worship – biblically interpreted as a series of rules regarding how, where, and when one can worship, how one can offer sacrifices, and implications of the physical spaces where those things happen. Applied to our work in NFTY, these are the rules and ideals we live by. Our Brit Kehilah, Covenant of the Community, is a document created by youth leaders for youth leaders. Just like the Ten Commandments, our brit kehilah tells us things we should do, and things we must not do. These rules were created to protect the sanctity of this community. NFTY’s Thirteen Principles is comprised of the values on which NFTY stands. Torah, The Jewish People, The State of Israel, Hebrew, History, To Learn and To Do, Pluralism, Self, Justice, Community, Repairing the World, Partnership, and Fun and Spirit, are the foundation of who we are and what we do. And the concept of Generational Leadership, the ability to make the most of any leadership opportunity by finding a balance in the present moment by having a simultaneous respect for the past and a vision for the future. The Brit Kehilah, NFTY’s Thirteen Principles, and Generational Leadership are the rules that NFTY leaders live and lead by.
The second kind of justice was the appointing of Kings. Our equivalent to this is electing officers. This week’s portion says that a Jewish king is commanded to write their own Torah scroll and carry it with them at all times. This was to remind the king of who they were obligated to in their leadership role, and the rules to live and lead by during their tenure. Having a title is great however it’s the actions of any leader that will define how that title is perceived. In Jewish thinking, arrogance is considered one of the worst traits, while humility is seen as the greatest. When the Torah looks to praise Moses he is called the “most humble of all men.” Moses, who had a stutter. Moses, who hit the rock, twice. Moses, who was human and made mistakes, and did not make it to the land of Israel. Moses, who even with his challenges and flaws, never put his own self-worth above anyone else in the community. Moses, the Sages say, is the greatest and most genuine human being that ever lived. A humble person serves those who they lead, not themselves.
The third type of justice is called Cities of Refuge. Biblically, places where those responsible for crimes could go and seek safe harbor while making teshuva, or repenting for their sins. In NFTY, we understand that there are rules and policies in place, and we sign our name stating that we will follow those rules. And we know, Jewishly, that our name has real meaning. Sometimes, people we really care about make a poor choice and break one of these rules. In NFTY we offer the opportunity for members of our community to meaningfully engage in a teshuva process, an opportunity to reflect and learn on that choice, and why they would not make that same choice again. What is equally if not more important than someone engaging in meaningful teshuva is our obligation, as leaders of our communities, to welcome someone who has done teshuva back into our community. We need to own the authentic and meaningful reintegration of our peers back into the communities that we love, and that they love, because we all make mistakes, and every one of us has infinite value and remarkable gifts to share. And those who have had more of a chance to learn tend to be the ones who are even more compelled to lead.
The fourth kind of justice is Witness and Testimony. This is essentially about pursuing the truth of justice, about being honest, straightforward, not triangulating, and not gossiping. And one of my favorite concepts – assumption of good will. The basic premise that we all want the best for the things we care about, so why would any of us take the time to go out of our way to make someone else’s program, or project, or life, more difficult? If you see something or hear something that resonates as challenging, ask for clarification, don’t jump to conclusions. My favorite Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, once wrote, “The origin of all conflict between people is that we do not say what we mean, and we don’t do what we say.” We each have an obligation to be honest and say what we need to say in a way that is constructive and can be heard, and, we have to follow those words with actions that will come to fruition.
And the fifth kinds of justice are the Rules of Warfare. While your work in NFTY is not sending you into a war zone, often in leadership roles, it can feel as though we are navigating mine fields of personalities, ideas, politics, and differences of custom, style, or opinion. So we have to be thoughtful about how we engage in shared leadership models so that we leave no collateral damage behind. The Rules of Warfare even go so far as to state that a soldier who has a bad attitude should be removed from the line of duty because their behavior can affect the soldiers around them. Each of us has a sphere of influence beyond ourselves. As leaders, our actions take place in a fishbowl, we are always being noticed by others, and consequently we must constantly be aware of the possible effect we can have on others without even directly communicating with them. And we should strive to behave in a way that our peers want to emulate, rather than being the example of what not to do.
After thinking about the original question of where was the justice in the EIE trip being postponed, the EIE teens and I could find parallels to all five of these types of justice and the situation they found themselves in. Perhaps the greatest debate of all was about the text, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue. Why is justice repeated twice? Maybe because justice is an ongoing effort that each of us is commanded to do, and therefore the word is repeated for emphasis? Or even more interesting, that there must be righteousness in how we pursue justice – that even the means to reach justice must be fair, and kind, and decent, and intentionally good. In Torah, and in life, the ends do not justify the means. We can’t ever fully enjoy the end product if the process of getting there leaves people or places or things damaged in some way.
Perhaps in its simplest form, Shoftim is really about Law and Order. The law is established by the judges, and the order is upheld by the guards. You are those judges and guards, working in tandem to ensure this holy community and to hold one another accountable to standards of excellence, compassion, and order. As the EIE teens boarded their bus from Kutz to JFK airport at 2 am Wednesday morning, there was a heightened understanding of happenstance, of things running a different course that may have, in some way, seemed like an unfortunate challenge, that may have actually been a coincidence of divine intervention. Those teens had each very clearly chosen a path to Israel that did not include 46 Bowen Road. They each very clearly left for Israel changed in some meaningful way because of this unusual experience.
And each of you has chosen your own path, your personal leadership adventure. There will be things you are so planful about, and then sometimes, all the planning in the world can’t hold up to those happenstances along the way. Is there justice in that? I think in the case of EIE, the remarkable leaders of our Israel semester this Fall, they would all agree that there was justice in this change of plans because of the process we went through, together, to make it meaningful for each of them.
You have a remarkable opportunity this year to leave your indelible imprint on your respective regions. I implore each of you to believe in yourself, because you are here for a reason. You matter. Your work matters. And each of you is the most important person in the world to someone, whether you know it, or not. NFTY lasts four years, and the lessons you learn will live with you for your lifetime. So I ask you, as leaders in your communities, will you rise to the occasion when things become their most challenging and seek justice, with justice? I leave it to you to be the Shoftim, the judges.