Hitler claimed that “Conscience is a Jewish invention”. He was right. In the words of the great Catholic historian, Paul Johnson: “All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind”.
Nietzsche, modernity’s foremost atheistic thinker, argued that the Jews possess “the moral genius among the nations”. And when Albert Einstein was asked which features of the Jewish tradition he appreciates the most, he responded: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to the Jewish people.”
Our parashah professes unequivocally: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20)”. This moral imperative aptly reflects the origins of our people’s “almost fanatical love of justice”, as Einstein defined it. Throughout history, Jews contributed in large and disproportionate numbers to social and humanitarian movements and groups which sought to create a more just social and political landscape. One striking example of this Jewish “fanatical love of justice”, is the Jewish-American disproportionate contribution to the Civil Rights movement in this country. During the 1960’s, Jewish-Americans constituted merely 3% of the overall population, but amazingly, most lawyers working for the Civil Rights movement in the south were Jewish!
It was the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, including Isaiah and Micah, who were the first humanistic visionaries in history to articulate a vision of universal peace, and called for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, oppression, and corruption.
But above all, it is our national narrative, the story of our birth as a nation, which molded our ethical temperament as people who are sensitized to the plight of the downtrodden, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Ours is a story of a dehumanized and oppressed group of slaves who underwent the first recorded act of genocide in history, as the Pharaoh decreed that all born male Jewish infants should be murdered at birth. Miraculously, we were liberated and given a sacred vocation, namely – to build a just and exemplary society. Ever since then, our exodus became a universal narrative of hope for all of humanity, and inspired countless groups in their respective struggles for justice, equality, freedom and dignity.
As Jews, we conclude every Shabbat and weekday service with the Aleynu prayer, in which we vow “To fix the world under G-d’s sovereignty (Letaken olam bemalchut Shadday)”.
And so, millennia after our people’s original exodus from Egypt, and decades after our respective exoduses from European and Islamic lands, the journey for justice continues, and it will be’ezrat Hashem continue, until, in the timeless words of the prophet Amos: “Justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24)”.