Anchoring the Quest for Justice:
Learning from Leviticus
Reverend Teri Daily
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Growing up, our daughter Emma had what Dave and I often called an overly-developed sense of justice. So, when in the third grade she said she wanted to become a civil rights lawyer, we couldn’t think of a more fitting vocation. She could spot inequality in a split second--whether it was in divvying up food or who chose the movie we would watch. We moved to Clarksville when Emma was five years old and, from the time we moved into our home, she was convinced that her brother had the larger bedroom. After months of hearing the complaint, we finally measured the two rooms, hoping to put the whole thing to rest. But it ended up that, in fact, Wilson’s room was an inch larger than Emma’s in one dimension. We heard about it for the next four and a half years we lived there. Not only was she attuned to detect injustice, but, once detected, she didn’t tire easily in her crusade against it.
I think that our society at times also has an overly-developed sense of justice, albeit in a different sense of the word. When we say that we long for justice, we are sometimes referring to consequences for a wrong that’s been committed. We want retribution, maybe even bordering on retaliation. When we see what a crime exacts from a victim, we sometimes want to see the perpetrator bear a cost as well. In its most vigorous form, this type of justice can even approximate a legalized form of street justice.
But we also find popular appeals for justice that grow out of compassion for those who are the most vulnerable among us--the poor, the marginalized, the very young or the very old. We saw this outpouring for Trayvon Martin; we saw it for the 23-year old female student in India who died a year ago following a brutal gang rape that took place on a bus; we find it in those who spend time being court-appointed special advocates for the most vulnerable children in our community. Justice wears many hats in our own time--that of equality, of retribution, and of advocacy on behalf of those most at risk.
In today’s reading from Leviticus, we have at least a partial picture of what justice is to look like for the newly-forming community of ancient Israel. This passage from Leviticus comes from a section of that book known as the Holiness Code; it is a section that focuses on what it looks like for God’s chosen people to live a pure and holy life; it is a block of scripture that some see as the heart of the Torah. In this part of Leviticus, we catch a glimpse of how a people who are bound to their God through a covenant live that covenant out with God and with one another. And looking past or maybe through some of the seemingly irrelevant codes of Leviticus that hardly resonate with most people today, the gist of it all is absolutely timeless and simple: Be holy, because your God is holy. Be holy, because your God is holy.
So, what does it look like for Israel to be holy as God is holy? According to today’s reading, it looks like leaving some of the harvest for the poor and the alien, and not gathering all of the grapes on the vine or those that fall to the ground. It looks like honesty, rendering to others what is due them, treating everyone with integrity despite social situation or personal preference for one person over another, holding one another accountable, forgiveness, and love.
And if this is how God calls Israel to be holy like God is holy, then we can learn a lot about who God is from these instructions in Leviticus. Leave some of the harvest and the fruit for the poor and the alien—for your God is a God of abundance, who cares alike about each and every one of us, rich or poor, Israelite or foreigner. Treat everyone equally, showing no partiality—for your God is an extravagant God who causes the “sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Love your neighbor as yourself—for your God is a God who loves the world so very much that God does not hold back even God’s own self from God’s people. Our holiness is important because, in a beautiful but broken world, it’s a reflection of God’s goodness and God’s holiness. In the words attributed to God in the book of Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In Jesus’ words from the gospel of Matthew: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Being holy in this section from Leviticus is about being just, about living in right relationship with one another, about moral and ethical behavior. This is what it looks like to practice justice; this is what it looks like to be righteous. So here’s the challenge: In our efforts to be “perfect” and “holy” as God is perfect and holy, can we stop at righteousness and not make the move into self-righteousness? Can we stop before we sprout an “overly-developed” sense of justice? Can we strive for justice, without spawning the deep-seated righteous anger we so often find? The self-righteousness that makes us want to distinguish the just from the unjust, the good from the evil, “us” from “them”? The kind of self-righteousness that at its most intense can make us equate justice with some kind of retaliation?
Following the law is about righteousness--yes. But lest we forget and let righteousness alone rule the day, we need to remember that it is also about love. In fact, the reading from Leviticus about justice ends with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice and love are not separated in God, and they’re not separated in the law either. As Rabbi Bradley Artson has written, “there is not a commandment in the Torah that is not devoted to advancing these intertwining purposes. There is not a single commandment in the Talmud and law codes that is not about advancing love and justice.” Cornel West also recognizes the connection between love and justice in one of my favorite quotes. He says: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” In other words, justice is rooted, not in self-righteousness or a rigid legalism, but in compassion, empathy, and love.
A few verses past today’s reading we find in this same chapter of Leviticus a commandment that the Israelites not cut the hair at the sides of their head or the edges of their beards. Some see this commandment as a way to distinguish the Israelites’ appearance from that of surrounding peoples, or as a means of preventing the religious customs of those peoples from taking root among the Israelites. But it’s also been suggested that this may be a way of wearing on their bodies the commandment about not reaping the fields to the very edge. The uncut hair would serve as a constant reminder to leave the edges of the field unharvested so that the poor and the alien could gather and eat.
Honestly, even if the Israelites were without any tangible, outward reminder of this commandment to not reap the edges of their fields, I suspect they carried an inner one. I suspect that somewhere deep in the collective memory of the Israelite people, the vivid memory of their own time as aliens in a foreign land lived on. I bet they carried deep inside them the story of their own time in the wilderness, a time of hunger before the manna began to fall from heaven. More than any outward reminder, maybe their inner scars and struggles as a people grounded their own quest for justice in compassion and empathy towards the other. At least, I hope that’s true.
Not many of us wear reminders on our body of what justice looks like, of the ethical behavior we’re called to emulate. But I suspect that we, too, carry inside us experiences that can serve as vivid reminders. Instead of hardening our hearts, maybe memories of our time on the margin, of our pain and hurt, of times when we’ve experienced injustice will actually soften our hearts and ground our quest for justice in compassion, and not in self-righteousness. Instead of exacting our own justice with a quip of the tongue or a momentary surge of superiority, maybe past experiences of being wrong will keep us humble as we strive for justice. Maybe all these things we carry inside can help us remember that, yes, justice is a matter of right and wrong, but it is more a matter of love.
There is a beautiful poem by Yehuda Amichai, a prominent Israeli poet, called “The Place Where We Are Right.” It tells us what’s at stake in how we anchor our quest for justice. It tells us why seeking justice from a place of love and not self-righteousness is so very important: resurrection and transformation always come from a place of love, never from a place of self-righteousness.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
 Rabbi Bradley Artson in “What’s the Bottom Line in Judaism? Love and Justice” at http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/whats-the-bottom-line-in-judaism-love-and-justice.html.