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Affirming Justice: Our Relationship to Government and Heaven

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There was a lot of wisdom in the psychoanalytic revelation that our relationship with our parents is interconnected with our relationship with G-d. Perhaps there is a connection between our relationship toward the government and toward heaven as well?

The sages actually teach us that our relationship to our government isn't totally removed from our relationship toward heaven. Consider the following Talmudic passage:

Rabbi Abbahu was bereaved. One of his children had passed away. Rabbi Jonah and Rabbi Yose went up (to comfort him). When they called on him, out of reverence for him, they did not express to him a word of Torah. He said to them, "May the rabbis express a word of Torah." They said to him, "Let our master teach us." He said to them, "Now if in regard to the government below, in which there is no reliability, (but only) lying, deceit, favoritism and bribe-taking, which is here today and gone tomorrow (if concerning that government) it is said, 'And the relatives (of the felon) come and inquire after the welfare of the judges and of the witnesses, as if to say "We have nothing in our hearts (against you), for you judged honestly" (Sandhedrin 6:6)' in regard to the government above, in which there is reliability, but no lying, deceit, favoritism, or bribe-taking, and which endures forever and to all eternity, all the more so we are obligated to accept upon ourselves the just decree (of the heavenly government)," (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 6:12).

The rabbis are teaching that the relatives of one who is executed must eventually testify that they have come to terms with the verdict and punishment (that they remain bought in to our imperfect human courts of justice). At the appropriate time, the relatives should greet the judges and witnesses involved with the case and declare that they do not hold a grudge toward them and that they have accepted the verdict and meted out punishment. This can be compared with the statement of "Baruch Dayan Emet," the declaration that G-d is the true judge stated after one's loved one has been taken from this world.

The rabbis intuited that in learning to trust and accept our government, we would become more open and able to do so with G-d as well. Consider the G-d as King metaphor used throughout the High Holiday liturgy. Often times, we come to relate to the all Powerful through our experiences with the earthly powerful. This, of course, does not mean that there isn't struggle, questioning, or even protest. It does mean, though, that some things cannot be changed. If we are to live in the present and in the future we cannot be stuck in the past. We must work to remove certain pains from our past and to move forward with audacious hope. All of creation is dependent upon a G-d above. So too, justice and order in this world relies heavily upon our nation-states and governing bodies. Although they fail too often, we must continue to be an integral part of the solution and work diligently, and with perseverance, toward building more just societies.

It is all too common notion, printed in newspapers and magazines, heard on the radio, and voiced on nearly every televised news program, that our government is completely broken; that it has become paralyzed by partisan gridlock; that our elected officials have become slaves to corporate interests. These claims are substantiated by the remarkably low approval ratings for our government and elected officials today. During the recent government shutdown, hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed, the District of Columbia was forced to delay Medicaid payments, North Carolina ended its monetary and food assistance to the poor, Michigan was on the verge of doing the same, and many other states would have been forced to follow this lead if they were unable or unwilling to foot the bill without federal aid. This reprehensible political brinkmanship cost the economy 120,000 jobs and $3.1 billion in gross domestic product from lost government services; still, the lasting effects to businesses and workers, many of whom will not receive back-pay, has yet to be determined.

Now that the government is back in business, House of Representatives has already passed a bill cutting $40 billion from the food stamp (SNAP) budget, despite the fact that 49 million Americans (16 million of whom are children) -- nearly 15 percent of U.S. households -- suffer from hunger and cannot put meals on their tables without government assistance. The Senate has yet to vote on this bill. We know that it will not be possible, even with all the private charity in America, to make up this gap, if the Senate passes the legislation. Will we be forced to repeat the selfish and maniacal pattern that we have endured the past few years, with a radical core threatening to create chaos unless they eviscerate all aid to the poor, or will those battling for justice triumph and preserve our ability to give aid to the poor and the most vulnerable among us?

We must be optimistic, defeat the cynicism in our hearts, and keep our sacred dreams alive. Sometimes it is nearly impossible and the brokenness penetrates my heart and brings me to tears -- the divisiveness of our moral discourse (manifest in broken politics), the destructive clashing of values among my people (manifest in power struggles and war), the oversight of those suffering the unbearable (manifest in deepened loneliness when they are left to bleed and die alone) -- but we must endure and continue this holy struggle. Good Lord, if only all humans would sit with this pain and empathize with their brothers and sisters for one minute each day. May we have strength. Our investment in human justice may affect our relationship to Divine justice.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."