They say possession is 9 tenths of the law. That’s a pretty high number. I remember when 90% used to get you an A in school. How things have changed. Now, 90% is barely a B+. So, what I am saying is, if possession is 9 tenths of the law, it’s a good percentage, but not good enough for my parents. Here’s my childhood trauma unfolding for you. I guess what I am really saying is, as impressive as 9 tenths of the law may sound, it’s really not enough. In fact, at times, Jewish tradition teaches us that even 100% of the law is only 50% of the story. And that may be true, 80% of the time. Confused yet? Good.
What I am trying to talk about is a concept called, “Torah im derech eretz.” It means Torah with the world around us. That means the law on its own is not enough. Law can be cold and heartless, and human beings at times must rise above law to do what is actually right. I am not suggesting that you have to break the law, not at all. However, evil is often permissible, and doing good demands sacrifice. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, says that this is a critical dialogue that must be ongoing at the interface of Judaism and the surrounding culture.
Torah im derech eretz, the application of law must take into account the surroundings.
And I will give you some examples, in just a moment….. For now, we respond to our surroundings, this place at this moment as we rise for the call to worship on page 146.
A story is told of a man, let’s call him Shimon. Shimon tried to be good, and righteous, a family man who was kind to kin and community. But despite his piety, Shimon was very poor. He always prayed that one day he would be blessed with better fortune. But the fortune did not come.
One day Shimon, down to his last ruble, borrowed money from the wealthiest man in town. He was given fourteen days to repay the loan, but at the end of those two weeks, Shimon’s fortunes had not changed. He could not afford to pay the man back. Another two weeks passed, then another two weeks, and two weeks more. It really was not much money. To the wealthy man it was a drop in the bucket, but to Shimon it was like an ocean.
Finally, the wealthy man found Shimon in the marketplace and told him, “If you don’t pay me back, I will take you to court. The judge will take care of this.” The man dragged Shimon by the collar and brought him before the judge. The townspeople had seen what was happening, and, being nosy, decided to follow along to witness the unfolding drama.
At the court, the wealthy man called to the judge, “Come and judge a case of law.” The judge dutifully donned his black judge’s robe and a black hat. He took his place behind the bench.
The townspeople listened as the wealthy man described the loan. And they heard Shimon talk about his bad luck that kept him from paying it back.
Murmurs filled the court gallery. “The merchant has enough. He doesn’t need this money. He could just forget about it and move on. Think about Shimon’s family. Think about the kids.” The murmurs grew into loud complaints which turned into angry shouts all in support of Shimon and his plight.
“Silence!” the judge shouted. When the room fell quiet, the judge announced, “Now I shall read the verdict.”
And I will tell you what that was in a bit….. For now, we consider the great gift of justice as we turn to page 159 and join together in this prayer of freedom.
Amid all the hullabaloo concerning Shimon, and the wealthy man surrounded by the townspeople who were all very agitated, the judge read his decision.
“Shimon must repay what he owes immediately. That is the law, and that is what justice requires.”
The people’s hearts sank, and Shimon’s face turned white. Then before anyone could say a word, the judge stood up, took off his hat, turned it over and started to pass it around the room.
“Now I will collect tzedakah from all of you. Reach into your pockets to help Shimon pay back his neighbor. The law is one thing. But this is what mercy requires.”
For the judge, the law was 9 tenths of his consideration. And tzedakah, though it was the last tenth, was the most important. It is like a race. Think about the tortoise and the hare. The hare led 9 tenths of the race and slowed down, while the tortoise finished strong. Without the final tenth, all things are incomplete.
So now that Shimon has learned this lesson, he can put it into action for himself, and I will tell you about that in just a bit…At this time in our service, we reflect on how to turn our values into meaningful actions and we rise for Tefillah on page 164.
Over the years, our friend Shimon’s position had greatly improved. He worked hard and saved up enough money to buy a small farm. To do the work on this farm, he needed of a donkey. So, he went to the marketplace and saw one he liked. He asked the price and paid for it. He led the donkey home where his children excitedly welcomed their new friend. The youngest, Hannah, found something hanging around the donkey’s neck. It was a small bag hanging from a string. Inside the bag was a large diamond. Hannah and the rest of the children ran to Shimon, calling, “Papa, Papa, guess what. You thought you just bought a donkey, but you actually bought a diamond worth ten times what you paid for the donkey. After all this time, God has surely blessed us. We’re rich!”
Shimon picked up Hannah with a big hug, and with a big smile, he said to her, “We are blessed indeed…, but not for the reasons you might think.”
And I will tell you what Shimon meant in a bit…First we think about the importance of sincerity as we pray for our prayers to be true and worthy of consideration. Retzei is on page 174.
Shimon, holding the diamond, set Hannah down and said, “We are blessed because we get to perform a great Mitzvah.”
Hannah said, “Yes. We will sell the diamond, and we will give some of the money to tzedakah.”
Shimon shook his head and said, “No. We will return the diamond to its owner.”
But, said Hannah, “The Torah teaches if you buy a field and discover treasure in the field, then it belongs to you. You taught me that. You bought the donkey. The donkey had a diamond. And now you have the diamond. It’s yours. That is the law!”
Shimon agreed, but explained, “That is the law, but when it comes to helping others, the law is the least we can do. We have to think beyond the law in order to make peace in the world.”
So, Shimon returned the diamond to the man in the marketplace, and Shimon was always known as a man of integrity. For Shimon knew, possession was not only 9 tenths of the law. Even if it was ten tenths of the law, it was still not good enough. He believed in Torah im derech eretz. That is to say, true peace among neighbors occurs only when the law in combined with compassion, when justice is determined by a charitable heart. Because of his wisdom and his act of kindness, everyone in town, especially the merchants, said, “May God always bless Shimon for the example he gave.” And indeed, he and his family were always blessed for the rest of their days.
Let us now consider, all of us, how we can take the best of the law and the most good with it, not just for our benefit and the benefit of our families, but for the benefit of our community and all the Earth. We continue with the prayers that are written in our hearts.