Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Shofetim 2011

Parashat Shofetim by Rabbi Anna Gerrard
2 September 2011

Three weeks ago on Shabbat Nachamu, I wrote about the London riots that had just taken place.  “The rioting certainly should be condemned; yet we have to ask ourselves the hard questions too.”

Now that the media frenzy has died down, we are facing many hard questions.  Why did the riots begin and how did they escalate to such a scale?  How do we prevent such escalation in the future?  How do we rebuild trust in the affected communities?

One contentious questions is to what extent should the rioters be punished?  We have seen outrage at some rioters being ‘let off the hook’ as well as concern at others being given inordinately harsh sentences.

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.  You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.  Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

The magistrates and the officials in our society are being charged with the task of pursuing justice and judging fairly.  It may seem obvious that this means assigning punishments that are even-handed, proportionate to the offence and likely to encourage reformed behaviour.

If this is not happening, it is perhaps because the situation is so complex, which brings me back to my original ‘hard question’. “Why are these young people so disillusioned with society and it’s institutions?”

This is a discussion that we cannot avoid as Liberal Jews even is the world media has turned its attention to other matters already.This is a discussion that the book of Deuteronomy obliges us to rekindle time and time again.

To rekindle this discussion at your Shabbat table this week, I leave you with an insight that I gained while talking about the riots with my uncle and his friends.

While most see the riots as acts of opportunist vandalism and greedy theft, many underprivileged youths feel that society is against them and they deserve anything they can take.

We could say that opportunist greed is a normative part of human nature.  After all, individuals with greater means and the necessary knowledge often dance around the fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion.

When such ‘legal’ activity goes unpunished and high profile politicians and celebrities are reported to get away with all manner of misdeeds, should we not be more understanding of those feelings of injustice?