“Judge the wretched and the orphan, vindicate the lowly and the poor.” (82:3)
Reminder: These reflections do not necessarily represent the original or contextual meaning of the verse.
We are called to judge and to vindicate, but this does not mean that the purpose of judging is to vindicate. It is not a kinder, gentler version of “give ‘em a fair trail and then hang ‘em!” We are called to hold everyone accountable, even those who are at a disadvantage. And we are also called to remember that all too often the poor suffer greater punishment than the wealthy because they lack the resources to present the best defense.
“May he judge Your people rightly.” (72:2)
In order to live in a civilized society we agree to live by a set of rules and we have a system of justice to enforce those rules. The police enforce the law, the district attorneys prosecute alleged lawbreakers, and the courts provide a fair and level playing field for this drama to take place. However, the individual citizen is a puny, powerless, entity compared to the might of the State. We rely on our leaders at every level of government to create and maintain a culture in which those with power do not abuse their authority. When they lose our trust because they do not behave properly, civil order breaks down.
“Would that I had wings, like a dove!” (55:7)
Why not wings like an eagle, or a vulture? Wouldn’t any wings do, to give me the ability to soar above the earth? The answer is that any achievement, especially any piece of technology, can have a dark side, a violent or abusive function. A dove is a symbol of gentleness and peace. When we wish for flight, we also ought to wish for the wisdom to use the technology wisely, a lesson that Icarus learned too late.
“I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (51:5)
Judaism favors the religious person who rejects the impulse to say ‘I am a sinner and I am worthless’ in favor of saying ‘I am a sinner and my repentance completes my atonement.’ To do so, one needs to recognize the necessity of daily heshbon hanefesh, self-evaluation. A person cannot recognize transgressions unless he or she is willing to take responsibility for the mistakes which happen every day. Admitting one’s errors is the first step towards teshuvah (repentance) and atonement.
“Nations rage, kingdoms topple.” (46:7)
Anger is not a good emotion for a leader. Anger clouds the mind and perverts judgement. Angry people make poor decisions, leading to poor outcomes. Anger is a volcano – showy, frightening, and generally destructive. Good may come from volcanic anger, but only after a long cooling off period. Hawaii of course was built by a volcano, but the beautiful fertile volcanic soil took eons to form. Volcanic anger can lead to Pompeii, Minoa, and Montserrat, which never recovered, and to Mount St. Helens, which exacted a toll of over $1 billion in damage to industry, massive environmental damage, and 57 human lives. A good leader knows how to calm rage before it reaches destructive proportions.