Sermon Saturday Morning
- Shabbat Shalom
- The Memphis Three were set free from jail this week. Three men, convicted almost 20 years ago for the killing of three children in an occult ritual, one of whom was given the death penalty; they walked out of jail as free men. After more than 19 years in prison, DNA evidence that was not available 20 years ago, convinced a judge that there was no way that these three men could have committed this terrible crime. Anyone who is not a part of this case, looking at the documents that convicted these three, is appalled that they could be convicted on such flimsy evidence. The man was convicted of capital murder by a jury of his “peers” based on a confession that was gained illegally. It was coerced from one of the defendants who was threatened by the police, without access to a lawyer and who recanted this so called confession the next day.
- This miscarriage of justice was the result of police eager for a quick resolution of a terrible crime. It was the result of a prosecutor who wanted the publicity of a conviction. It was the result of judges who did not want to admit that they may have made a mistake. It took thousands of people, including some very famous people, who paid the lawyers who worked for years to get these three innocent men freed from prison. It is hard to imagine that in the country of justice and freedom, the land of law and order, the nation that is famous for its crime scene investigations, that this kind of railroad justice could even exist, let alone leave three innocent men in prison for nearly 20 years.
- This is the kind of case that lies at the foundation of our Torah reading today. Judges and officials are to be appointed who will show no partiality to the rich or the poor; magistrates who will not accept bribes to find for one side of the case or the other. A conviction in Jewish courts requires two or three witnesses; one can’t be convicted on the testimony of just one person. Courts did not have juries, but they had a panel of three judges, who were supervised by a regional court of 23 judges, who were supervised by a national court of 71 judges.
- Furthermore, witnesses that testified in a murder case would be required to throw the first stones when the time for execution arrived. Witnesses who conspired against someone were punished with the same punishment they intended for their victim. Witnesses were questioned separately and had to agree to what they saw. They could not be relatives of anyone involved in the case. And once acquitted, there could be no double jeopardy.
- But even with all these safeguards, there were miscarriages of justice in the ancient world as well. Israelite royalty, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had their neighbor executed for treason on the testimony of two bribed witnesses so that the King could seize the land and vineyard of the neighbor. Nobody said a word to the King until the prophet Elijah confronted them. King David was also punished for killing a man to avoid an embarrassing indiscretion. We see why our Parsha requires a Jewish king to write a copy of a Torah for his own use; to impress upon him the details of the law.
- We like to think that we take our sense of justice seriously; that if we are called upon to serve on a jury, we would work extra hard to make sure that we made the just and right decision. Maybe some of us have served on a jury and actually had to decide a case. It is not as easy as it looks on TV. When we are the ones who have someone’s life in our hands, to send them to jail, to send them home or to put them on probation is not an easy decision. We hope we make the right choice, but often, even at the end of a case, we are unsure of what was the right thing to do.
- Would we have convicted Casey Anthony if we had been on her jury? What about OJ Simpson? Would we have wanted to sit on the jury of the rape case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Could we have done a better job? Before you answer, it is important to remember that we do not have all the evidence in our hands that was presented in court. Even if we wanted to watch the proceedings of these sensational trials, we could not have seen all the information. Television only covers the “interesting” parts trials. The media only records what their experts say are important and relevant, but seeing the accused and hearing the tone of voice of the witnesses is also an important part of a trial. How can we possibly say what we might have done if we were not there?
- I actually think that we often rush to judgment on the testimony of just one witness. We all too often allow the trial of someone in the court of public opinion. We convict those arrested without even seeing the evidence that needs to be presented. There was a crime, we have a suspect, if the police say he did it, than it must be true. Unless it is almost 20 years later and we can see that the police did it very wrong. I don’t even want to limit this to the sensational crimes in the news each week. We make far too many decisions based on just one opinion and we then cite that testimony as if it has to be true.
- I get, almost every week, a story in my email about some sensational item in the news. The more fantastic the information the more likely that someone will forward it to me. Just about every one of these emails is filled with inaccuracy and falsehood. Just because we read it on the internet does not make it true. I have read terrible things about the government of Israel that never happened. I have seen horrific quotations attributed to the Koran that are completely imaginary. Did you get the email that said that Saudi Arabia Air is now part of the Star Alliance of airlines and it claimed that Delta Airlines would start refusing to take Jewish passengers? It was completely false. It never happened. It can never happen. This is a terrible example of bigotry against Muslims. We just can’t believe everything that we learn on the internet. There is in fact a site on the internet that is dedicated to debunking all these lies that are out there posing as facts for us to repeat.
- So if you can’t trust what you read or see on Television, who can you trust? I have always been a believer in reading more than one source and then, comparing the information and making my own decision. I get my news from many sources. I watch the 11 pm news on TV most evenings. I read the news from many different sources. I read the headlines from the Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinel, ABC news, MSNBC news, CNN, and even the BBC. I have any news about Delray Beach, about Conservative Judaism and Rabbis automatically sent to my email. I read the Israeli paper Haaretz every day and I have national and international headlines from around the world sent to me for evaluation. I get the latest news about technology from a computer magazine. Of course I daily check the headlines for important stories in the New York Times and not just because my son works there.
- I often check out local news in at least three of these sources before I feel ready to make a comment on it. I usually check out national news also in at least three sources, one of which is a foreign source to see how others look at the same information. The facts may be the same but the interpretations are widely different. It is a lot of work to be able to comment on politics, international news, and even local stories. I never judge a story in the news from just one source. Only if I have read the story in a number of places do I feel I understand what the story is about. I was annoyed this week because all the news stations were complaining that 1.5 million people who were in hurricane Irene are still without power. That may be true, but the number on Sunday was 5.5 million people without power, that is almost an 80% improvement in just a few short days. I agree that 1.5 million people is still a large number but I can’t fault the power companies and the politicians for not doing a good job.
- And that applies all the more so to gossip. I don’t know why people want to share gossip with the Rabbi; I never comment on it or share it with others and more often than not I challenge the person telling the story to reveal his or her sources. If I do hear something troubling about someone I know, I call them right away and find out for myself if the information is true and if there is anything I can do to help them in their troubles. I don’t judge anyone on the testimony of one witness.
- One of the things we need to be examining at this season of the year is if we are too quick to judge others based on flimsy testimony. Do we rush to judgment of those who show up in the evening news? Do we form opinions only because our “favorite” commentator endorses it? Do we look askance at our neighbors because of the latest rumors going around about them by the pool? If so, we will have much to atone for on Yom Kippur. Our Parsha challenges us all to be skeptical of what we read and what we hear. It asks us to consider other possibilities for the fantastic stories that we hear; and not let someone else “bribe” our minds with assorted half truths that will cloud our judgment when it comes to the bigger issues.
- When you hear a talk show and there are people around the table who disagree and are given a chance to explain why they disagree, you have a reason to perk up your ears. If you hear a news personality apologize for getting a story wrong, it is OK to pay attention. But if you find a commentator who shouts down anyone who disagrees with him, it is best just to turn off the noise. There are way too many people in the media who seem to think that the louder they shout, the more people will believe them. That is why I never accept an opinion based on the testimony of one pundit.
- It does not matter if you read a story in the Jewish Journal or the New York Times. It makes no difference if the news is in the Palm Beach Post or National Enquirer. If you can find the story only in one place, then there is good reason to ignore it and just turn the page. Our parsha says “Justice, Justice shall you pursue”; it says “justice” twice to tell us that it is hard work to know what the real answer is and you have to pursue it because the truth will not always be what it first appears to be. If we can make this our habit when reading the news or when we are “chit chatting” with our friends, then we will be doing our part in fulfilling the commandments of parshat Shoftim.
May God help us to use our minds to uncover the truth when all is false and to find what is real when everything seems too good to be true. May we judge all of life fairly as we say…
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM