Of Riots, Honesty and Mending Society
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
Just before Tisha B’Av, I spoke about two recent murders in the Jewish world. I suggested that the root cause of much evil in society is the lack of respect for human life, something very much on the mind of the prophet Isaiah when he rebuked our ancestors. This thought seems especially relevant this weekend, as the world marks the 10th anniversary of the ‘9/11’ attacks on the USA. As we think of the victims, their families and mull over a day which destabilised the world in radical ways, Isaiah’s message seems especially apt.
Just after that Shabbat at the beginning of August, the UK was treated to a series of devastating riots. Exploiting unrest over the death of a man in a police shoot-out, violent criminals looted, burned and destroyed high-street shops and warehouses, causing huge damage, closing businesses and terrifying local residents. Much has been written about the riots, including an important and sensitive piece by the Chief Rabbi here. Many of us will have also been distressed to note the appearance of some Stamford Hill Chassidim caught rubbernecking in footage from the Tottenham riots. This has given rise to a new anecdote: there are three types of people in Stamford Hill – those who don’t have a television; those who do have a television but don’t tell anyone; those who now have a television!
This week’s parashah ends with two, ostensibly unrelated, mitzvot – the requirement to deal honestly in business, and the obligation to eliminate the memory of Israel’s murderous archenemy, Amalek. Rashi addresses this juxtaposition:
If you cheat with weights and measures, you should fear the attack of the enemy... (Rashi to Devarim 25:17)
It is noteworthy that the Torah refers to a dishonest person as an ‘abomination’ (Devarim 25:16), a form of opprobrium usually reserved for the most severe transgressions. According to Seforno (commentary to Devarim 32:16), these acts drive away the divine presence – that is they cause the rupture and demise of society.
But that is just the point – dishonesty and bloodshed, here represented by crooked business dealings and Amalek, are closely linked. A society in which there is no respect for the property of others will, given time, slide into one in which human life is cheap and dispensable. It is a small and frighteningly-easy progression from looting to killing, from the abomination of theft to the abomination of bloodshed.
Yet the converse must also be true – scrupulous honesty mends society, invites spirituality and nurtures our sense of the value of every human being.