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What is our justice?  - David Reissner

We in Britain are going through a troubling year.  Terrorist attacks, the uncertainty following the General Election and, of course, the Grenfell Tower fire.  Sometimes, we just want to look for escapism.

When it comes to escapism, we Brits, we love a good murder.  We are fascinated by killing. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading Agatha Christie books. Then, Raymond Chandler.  We watch Morse, or Scandi Noir like The Bridge, not to mention the multiple homicides in a James Bond book or film. It’s rare for these stories to focus on justice unless they are courtroom dramas, or stories in which “justice” is meted out in the form of revenge.

Indeed, Coronation Street has a murder rate of 3 in every 1000 people – averaging one murder every year – higher than any South American city; though this isn’t as high as East Enders or Hollyoaks!

In the Amidah we have just read, we prayed for justice.  Before we did that, near the start of our service, we asked:  “Mah tzikateinu“ which we translate as “What is our justice?”. It appears to be a rhetorical question.  The prayer doesn’t tell us what our justice is.

There are some moving passages in our siddur’s study anthology about judging others.  There are passages on prejudice, and there are passages on social justice, but do they answer the question “What is our justice?”

It seems to me there are various types of justice.  There’s the way we deal with other people – social justice.  There’s the way we resolve disagreements.  And there’s the way we deal with people accused of crimes.

Talking of killing and justice, there’s a story in the Torah which has always intrigued me, and I’ve often thought it might be interesting to give a sermon on it.  Unfortunately for me, it isn’t this week’s parsha.  But, I’m going to talk about it anyway. 

It’s a story you will remember.  Not one of those that we recall as children’s story’s, like David and Goliath.  This is one about Moses, before he became a leader of the Jewish people.  He has grown up in Pharaoh’s household as an Egyptian prince. He watches the Hebrew slaves labouring. He sees an Egyptian beating one of our ancestors, and kills him. It’s in chapter 2 of Exodus. I grew up thinking this story was about protecting our ancestor; saving his life.  But now I’m not so sure.

Allow me to digress. When I was a young lawyer, I recall defending a few people accused of shoplifting.  In each case,  the prosecution evidence was from a store detective who invariably said that he or she had watched the accused because they were acting suspiciously, and that the accused had looked around before concealing an item the defendant hadn’t paid for when leaving the store. The defendant usually claimed the failure to pay was accidental – absent-mindedness – rather than dishonest.

The store detective claimed that the defendant’s suspicious behaviour included looking round to check whether anyone was watching, and it was alleged that this proved that the defendant had acted deliberately and dishonestly.

If we go back to the story of Moses, what we read is that when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and saw their labours.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.  Moses turned this way and that, and seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Was Moses exercising princely justice to prevent the death of a slave?  It doesn’t seem like it.  What we learn in just a few lines of text were that Moses was an adult.  He knew the slaves were his kinfolk, he looked round before killing the Egyptian. In addition, he buried the body in the hope that no one would find it. Definitely not an accident. Murder?  Was it pre-meditated? Did Moses intend to kill the Egyptian and just hit him too hard? Was it a momentary loss of control, or a response to provocation - something in 21st century Britain we might class as manslaughter? Perhaps, through 21st century eyes, we should see Moses not as a killer, but as a freedom fighter.

As I say, my thoughts came back to this part of our history when we read this week’s parsha. Some years have passed since the killing. Moses is now the leader of the freed Hebrew slaves. He has led them out of Egypt. Aaron has died. God is giving Moses instructions about what to do when they cross the River Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. God has already told Moses how the land of Canaan is to be divided up amongst the tribes, and now God tells Moses to create cities of refuge to which anyone who has killed a person unintentionally could flee. So long as they stayed in a city of refuge, they would be protected. God makes a clear distinction between those responsible for unintentional killing and murderers. Murderers would be put to death by the blood-avenger – presumably the victim’s next of kin.

The focus on both intentional and unintentional killing has been a sad feature of the last couple of months. We have all been affected by the terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire. The Manchester and London terrorist killings were deliberate. The public responses to the terrorist attacks have been characterised by a range of emotions, including a stoic determination not to change our way of life.

The reaction to the Grenfell fire seemed very different to me. The fire has been described as the biggest disaster to affect London since the Second World War, and that seems an apt description. Many people died and the circumstances were horrible. For many people, feelings about the tragedy are very raw, and it’s difficult to talk about it.  Partly, that is because there were so many deaths in circumstances it is painful even to imagine, and partly because the survivors are still suffering. Where the responses to the terrorist attacks involved grief and stoicism, the biggest response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy seems to be anger.  It’s only natural in the circumstances, but I hope some other emotion will take the place of anger over time. I hope, too, that we can keep in mind the distinction we are reminded of in today’s parsha, between deliberate and non-deliberate killing. Of course, in the case of Grenfell Tower, individuals, businesses, officials, politicians and governments may be at fault. Everyone wants justice for the victims and the survivors. I worry that anger will get in the way.  

There have been glimmers of light. A terrorist drove a car at Muslim worshippers during Ramadan last month.  A man was killed, seemingly deliberately. The driver was attacked by some of the worshippers – described in the news as a mob.  It was the intervention of the Imam that halted the beating and resulted in the driver being taken alive into police custody to face justice.

And then there’s the public generosity in donating to charities to support the victims of the recent terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower survivors, and the many acts of kindness we’ve seen on the news.  That’s real social justice.

So despite the sadness of recent events and the uncertainty of the times we live in, we haven’t lost our sense of justice yet. It may not be as neat as a John Grisham story, but at least it’s real.


Keyn y’hiratson – May this be God’s will.

David Reissner


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781