“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your Lord God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Greetings from South Dakota. We are finally fulfilling my wife’s dream of visiting Mt. Rushmore. I was there many years ago, but seeing all the fascinating sites in the Black Hills has been inspiring. And to see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt carved into a mountainside is amazing. We also visited the Crazy Horse monument, the image of an Indian warrior carved into a mountain, which when finished will be far larger than Mt. Rushmore.
Of course, as expected in this age of cancel culture, Mt. Rushmore is under attack. After all, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and Jefferson impregnated one of those slaves. Roosevelt was a war monger – “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And today, Lincoln is a particular focal point of the cancel culture. Students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison are calling for his statue on campus to be removed. Among his perceived sins was his treatment of Native-Americans in the aftermath of the United States – Dakota War. But many also blame him for starting the Civil War. One magazine article argued that he should have let the Southern States secede, avoiding all the violence.
I suppose there are people who believe we should knock down Mt. Rushmore. But looking at the mountain, Evelyn and I felt a deep love and appreciation for our country. I believe the problem is that people want to judge people of the past by the ethical standards of today. That strikes me as deeply unfair. As the philosopher Georg Hegel taught, ideas including ethical ideas develop over history. History gives us new ethical insights. Yes, slavery is evil. But it was practiced throughout the world through much of history. Even the Bible speaks of slavery. The key issue is which nation fought a war over freeing slaves.
This week’s portion speaks of justice. It contains the famous verse, “Justice, justice pursue.” Why does it mention justice twice? One traditional answer is that the first is perfect justice, people getting precisely what they deserve in every situation. The second is compromise, people getting partial justice while allowing other people also to get partial justice. As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you what.” But sometimes you get what you need.
Perfect justice may exist in some perfect spiritual world. Plato envisions a World of the Forms where perfect justice rules. But in the real world we live in, there is not perfect justice. People do the best they can in this real world. And the four men on Mt. Rushmore, for all their shortcomings, did their best in difficult situations. In their day and their age, they pursued justice. Today we may do many things differently. Our ideas have evolved and developed. But these four former presidents deserve the accolades they received for the work they did in their generation.
There is a famous comment brought by the commentator Rashi about Noah. The Torah says he was “a righteous man in his generation.” Rashi admits that if he lived in a different generation, he might have been a nobody. But compared to the other people who lived in his generation, he stood out. We should not be looking for the perfect justice Plato sought. We should be looking at the best justice we can achieve in our generation.
I am glad we saw Mt. Rushmore. As one walks up to the pavilion overlooking the great carving in the mountain, there are flags of all fifty states and many American territories. It is a place to celebrate the greatness of America. Yes, injustice still exists in our country, and everywhere else in the world. But a little inspiration can help all of us work to make our country even more just.
May we pursue the perfect justice which our Torah portion envisions.