Shelach: Jury Duty


With a Samach-Vav Twist

— Samach-Vav Part 16 —

Wednesday June 21, 8:30AM – Riding the Number 4 train to Borough Hall, to fulfill my jury duty.

Hundreds of people are filing into the NY State Supreme Courthouse on Adams St. to do their part in “upholding the justice system,” as we are reminded by the indoctrination video welcoming us as we enter the vast hall called Room 216, where I and my compatriots will spend the day.

I come well prepared. With my Samach-Vav [the series of discourses delivered by the Rebbe Rashab a century ago] in hand and other papers to review, I have my day planned. I will study this week’s discourse in Samach-Vav, make a few telephone calls and twiddle my thumbs in between.

My first hurdle was to smuggle my cell phone into the courtroom. The jury instructions clearly stated that “cell phone cameras will be confiscated for the day.” But how can I – and so many of my vulnerable colleagues – survive a day without a cell phone?! What are they thinking?! Do they understand the consequences of cell-phone deprivation? (And why don’t they allow taking photos in courtrooms anyway?)

It didn’t end up being that difficult. I wasn’t the only one with the dilemma. Everyone — and I mean everyone — arriving had a cell phone with them, and we were all allowed in unscathed.

The day is filled with many humorous moments, but perhaps the funniest is when the clerk announces: “Anyone that does not have basic knowledge of English, please line up to my right.” I thought to myself: “How is someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of English supposed to understand that announcement…” But before I finish my thought the same announcement is made in Spanish, Chinese and Russian.

And here is the funny part: Immediately following the announcement (in English) around a quarter of the crowd arises and begins making their way to the line on the right. Until the clerk continues: “If you’ve lived in the United States for over 20 years the likelihood is that you have a basic knowledge of English.” Some of the people sit back down.

I guess “basic knowledge of English” can means many things; and the desperation of jury duty has a way of making people feel that “basic” is professor level English. Any thing to get outta this place.

The clerk continues: “Not having a basic knowledge of English does not mean that you can go home. It simply means that you will be interviewed.” More people return to their seats.

Clearly, jury duty is meant to keep as many people hostage for at least a full day. But then again, who will sit on juries if we are all allowed loopholes of escape? Doesn’t that sound sweet…

I turn around on my bench to watch the large crowd. People of all backgrounds, colors and creeds fill the room. A true cross section of NY has gathered here today, as they do every day, in room 261, awaiting instructions and their name to be called.

Time to travel elsewhere. I pull out my Samach-Vav.

What sustains negative and evil forces in life? Since they don’t have any power of their own, what keeps them going? Explains the Rebbe Rashab, they are sustained by a force that is called “makif” in mystical language. “Makif” (lit. surrounding) is a transcendent, hovering form of energy that is somewhat removed from the internal details and therefore can tolerate and give off energy even to the “other side.” When you are detached you often allow room for harmful forces.

For this reason, even good deeds need strong protection in this world. Since every good deed we do manifests in the material world, which is a hybrid combination of good and bad, selfish and selfless, there is always a potential that good actions will “feed” negative forces in the process.

Good people with good intentions need protection in a hostile universe. The protection comes from a force that is above and beyond us, an even higher level of makif, called the “distant makif,” a place that is beyond any form of negative influence, which cuts off the flow of energy (from the lower makif) to any unacceptable place. We access this higher makif through the negative mitzvoth (and through Torah). As discussed in a previous segment, the positive mitzvah generates a defined form of Divine energy, one that can be contained in the particular act of each respective good deed. The negative mitzvah manifests the Essence – the Divine energy than is beyond any form of expression, expressed only in the sheer effort of withstanding temptation to do something wrong. By avoiding destructive behavior we fortify our lives, building defenses and drawing down the Essential energy that surrounds us in its embrace and shields us from all harm.

Someone taps me on my shoulder. “We need your form.” Startled, I lift my eyes from Samach-Vav and remember that I am sitting in courtroom waiting to serve on a jury. Will I be arrested for learning Samach-Vav?

I give them my filled out form, and go right back to my thoughts.

This week’s Torah chapter and the following one discuss two opposite philosophies in dealing with the challenge of materialism.

Escapism and immersion.

The scouts, in this week’s chapter, are charged by Moses to check out the land of Israel in preparation of its conquest. The scouts return with a terrible report: “We cannot go forward against those people [living in Israel]. They are too strong for us.”

Hmm, the scouts were good people with good intentions, but they lacked the necessary protection. The scouts, the best men of their time, wanted to live spiritual lives, and felt that the optimal protection from the strangling tentacles of materialism is to avoid engagement at all cost. To remain in the insulated wilderness. The land is too powerful, they argued, a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”

And in their insistence to protect themselves from the material they ended up destroying their true protection. Because after all is said and done, what protects us in this world is not our own logical machinations, but a deep faith in the Divine, and the power that the Divine endows us to face all the challenges of life. [Joshua and Caleb, by contrast, did have extra protection: Moses prayed for Joshua’s wellbeing, and Caleb prayed at the gravesite of the patriarchs and matriarchs at the Machpela cave in Chevron].

You can run but you can’t hide. The scouts wanted to run – to escape behind the clouds of glory, the bread from heaven and the miracle water – to avoid the material land that “consumes its inhabitants.” All good and fine, but it is G-d that created the material land, and it is G-d who commanded the people, and blessed them, to enter the Promised Land, thereby giving them all the power and protection they need to not only survive but to thrive.

As Joshua and Caleb declared:

“[it] is a very, very good land. If G-d is satisfied with us…He can bring it to us. If you don’t rebel against G-d you won’t need to be afraid of the people in the land, because they are our ‘bread’ [i.e. we can transform them by elevating their sparks], [G-d will] have taken away their protection [i.e. the sustenance and power they receive from the makif, “shadow” (tzel)]. G-d is with us so don’t be afraid.”

Korach on the other hand (in next week’s portion) took the exact opposite approach: Since G-d created and placed us into the material world and we have nothing to fear, let us immerse ourselves entirely in materialism to elevate its powerful Divine sparks. His mistake was that you cannot survive on the protective “makif” energy from above alone. You need to build a life of virtue in this material world, through positive actions.

In Samach-Vav terminology: The scouts wanted the inner life (pnimi) without the protecting makif; Korach wanted the makif without the pnimi.

Extreme insulation and extreme immersion are not acceptable options.

To live a spiritual life in a material world requires not only avoidance and insulation but the ability to engage life and transform it.

Insulation and integration.

Back to earth, my name is called. Off we march to Room 5 to be screened as prospective jurors. After a judge instructs us as to the procedures, the attorneys representing the plaintiff and the defendant interview us to see if we will, as they put it, be fair and impartial. The case is about a door falling on a cleaning lady who is suing the owner for pain, suffering and damages.

I won’t bore you with the details. Bottom line is I am dismissed from this jury, and return to the lounge to continue serving my sentence.

I make some casual conversation, perhaps looking for the Divine providence of meeting someone I need to meet on this Wednesday. A man shares with me his tragic life. His mentally disturbed wife ran off with his son. He is so alone. Too many people are so alone. Life is too sad for too many people…

I escape back to Samach-Vav. Escape is not an option, the Rebbe Rashab tells me. Immerse, but stay above. Engage – and transform. Influence, don’t be influenced. Enter the universe and lift it.

No where to run. No where to hide.

1:00PM – Lunch time. At 12:45 an announcement sets off a scramble for the doors. Nothing like lunch break. I remain behind to see if anyone has anything else to do but run for lunch. No one remains. I guess no one wants to die of hunger. Or is it the lunch ritual that has us all programmed?

Off I go roaming the streets of downtown Brooklyn looking for a kosher meal. Not so simple. Finally a kosher stand emerges. Sit down on the wide steps of another office building to eat and observe. Are these steps that lead you somewhere or makeshift lunch seats that just look like steps?

2PM – back to the courtroom. Now what? We wait, and wait, and wait. Finally at 4:00PM I and many of my co-potential-jurors are discharged.

So now you know: I am a good American citizen, fulfilling my duty to the justice system. Ho-hum.

But I don’t know if I could survive just on that.

Thank G-d for Samach-Vav…


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18 years ago

The American jury system is the greatest thing outside marriage and Torah.

I usually like your emails but I do not like this one. When I am on jury duty I bring an interesting book and an attitude of appreciation. My grandparents came here for this system, and it only works on little people taking the time. They excuse you if you will truly suffer hardship.

Bad form.

18 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

I was summoned for jury duty earlier this year and was chosen and served on a case involving the smuggling of illegals into Arizona from Mexico.

While I was doing my civic duty a thief stole the license plates from my car which had been parked in a designated area in a garage authorized by the Federal government.

Despite my sympathy for the defendant, a woman in her 40s, the jury did convict her.

Jeff Levine
18 years ago

Interesting interplay with your judicial and extra-judicial experience woven together and balanced-a micro example of the content of your message – cool.

18 years ago

I just walked in from being discharged from Jury Duty and I laughed out loud reading your lovely discourse.. I have to share my jury experience with you because I think you will appreciate it… I was called to serve on Centre Street in downtown Manhattan at criminal court.. I reported yesterday.

I looked around the big sitting room where roll call was going on and tried to see the makeup of the people there, were any Jewish comrades present?.. It was more Caucasian then I remembered last time.. very yuppie, and some seniors, knitting and chatting, and then there in the corner of the room sat an elderly gentleman wearing a yarmulke.. I felt somehow relieved…. There were some people of Hispanic descent but not too many.. Cell phones were banished to the hallway and you had to sign the book before going out.. When you did, You felt somehow the strength of all those airwaves together, and it wasnt inviting. It looked like a wave of reporters calling in their stories.

I got put into a voir dire for a rape case of a man attacking a 15 year old. . The room had no windows and was freezing and gloomy.. The defendant looked nervous and miserable. .Noone wanted to be there.The judge asked if anyone had been abused by crime and half the people stood up. sad commentary. It took forever and when it was my turn I told the judge that I was a sabbath observer and he excused me. .YES! Our judge also asked like yours, if anyone had difficulty understanding the English language… He excused them but noticed one girl carrying a magazine.. He asked what that was and she said crossword puzzles.. He said, SIT DOWN and the room went hysterical for 5 minutes. The jewish man was also in the room with me and he had not been called up yet.. I handed him my book on the ways of the Tzaddikim and he seemed grateful. Its a long process these screenings and if you dont get up first you can sit forever. When I saw him back in the big room, he also had gotten off for Shabbas.. I am always grateful to be a jew but today it was really helpful.

I found the experience relaxing at first, a chance to be away from my busy routine and to get some studying in, perhaps recruit some secular jews to come to a class or make a new friend.. Longer than a few days would be more difficult and the getting up early was getting to me already on only day 2 (I work nites, big time change). I asked Hashem to do what was best for me, if He wanted me to stay longer or to be relieved, I would accept it as the best thing.

…Today we sat in the big room and the clerk announced that we were all being discharged at 11:30am.. Someone said it was a miracle because if there werent any cases they would normally send you to lunch and then have you come back and wait for an hour to see if you were needed before dismissing you.. Thank you Hashem.. Thank you Hashem..

18 years ago

Loved this.. and.. couldnt help but send you a Poem that I wrote last year in this regard…

Dreaded Summons


Ok, finally opened the mail
Been sitting there
Staring accusingly at me since Friday!
Yearly happening;
You are Hereby Summoned…
To serve as a trial juror for the Superior Court Of
The State Of…
Ok, so I burned out every excuse I could summon last year
But to prove I love my Country
serve they say I must!
Model citizen? Yes I AM, dangit!
But I see no sense in going 5 days, maybe ten,
For a buck two- ninety eight per day
When I could be in the warm confines of home,
Just contemplating my navel.
Mind whirling, excuses brewing…
Got any you can lend me for this year?

© 2006 Kay

18 years ago

Nice comments on insulation and integration.

Your jury comments, tho, betray a cynicism, shared by many on the outside. Id like to share an article I saved a while back that sheds a different perspective by jurors who did serve. I paste it here.

Personally Im not convinced that the jury system is necessarily better than, say, a 3-judge panel or a hybrid, as many other countries have. We [the USA] have it due to historical circumstances. Still, the personal aspect of serving, and the impact it can have, not just on those served (the litigants) but the jurors themselves, is a perspective worth knowing about. )
– Jonathan

Duty? Maybe It’s Really Self-help
by Anna Quindlen

NEWSWEEK May 7, 2001 p. 82

If being a juror is so bad, why do so many of the people who serve feel so good afterward?

This courtroom has a disconcerting decorative duality, like a person dressed only from the waist down. The lower half of the cavernous room has glowing wood wainscoting, and the well is set off by a surround of ornamental spindles. But above, the walls are flat and characterless, as though the money ran out, or the interest. …. Americans should be thrilled to serve on juries, since even a cursory study of our national personality would suggest that we have become the most judgmental people on earth.
… this is undoubtedly a place in which trust is put squarely in human beings, the fidgety, polyglot, slightly ill-humored group who are waiting to see if they will be chosen to serve on a jury. Each has been given a pamphlet explaining why jury service is good for the nation. Few seem to be convinced that it is good for the soul.

Americans should be thrilled to serve on juries, since even a cursory study of our national personality would suggest that we have become the most judgmental people on earth. The popular TV shows have this as their bedrock; one wrong answer to some meaningless trivia question and you become the “Weakest Link” in the minds of millions. On Court TV online, viewers can weigh in on whether a woman charged with killing her husband in Las Vegas should be sentenced to life in prison, whether they know the facts of the case or simply don’t like the way she wears her hair. The average American with a television, a computer or a newspaper becomes casually expert in conviction or acquittal in the court of public opinion with only a modicum of information: he’s a bad guy, she was provoked, the cops acted properly. Darryl Strawberry, Robert Downey Jr., Bob Kerrey: stop a dozen people on the street, and they will not hesitate to pass judgment with perfect certainty.

Real judgment is quite different from and substantially more demanding than this instant-messaging variety, which may be one of the many reasons, along with the disruption of their daily routines, that people try to avoid jury duty. In Dallas County last year, according to The Dallas Morning News, less than 20 percent of those summoned showed up. New York City’s numbers were once even worse, but its courts do better now, with attendance sometimes topping 50 percent, because of widespread changes in the system: eliminating jury-service exemptions for doctors and lawyers, adding welfare rolls to the voter-registration and licensed-driver lists as sources for summonses, increasing the pay to $40 a day. For those who actually show up, there may be hours of waiting, then the often tedious voir dire, the questioning to discern bias, point of view, fitness. If they are chosen, there are the days, perhaps weeks, of trial testimony, the need to pay attention, to listen carefully to the judge’s instructions and to consider seriously the standard of reasonable doubt. The slam-bang judgments of modern life are like “Jeopardy!” questions; jury service is a blue-book exam, a term paper.

Yet while people complain in advance that they won’t get paid at work, that they need to care for their children, that they have doctor’s appointments and vacation plans, at the end many people who serve on juries feel enlarged, even ennobled by what they have done. At a time when so many rituals and civic experiences have lost that sense of moment, when wedding vows have become increasingly fungible and voting has been devalued by the dangling chads of Florida and the big money of campaign finance, service on a jury remains perhaps the only public service that, for all its short-comings, its inconveniences, its impracticalities, still has the power to elevate an ordinary citizen. ….
No romantic illusions about the process: it is flawed. Stephen Adler, in his book “The Jury,” did a marvelous job of documenting through case histories how badly it can go wrong, how poorly it sometimes functions. In Virginia last year a task force recommended several common-sense ways to make the process better, including letting jurors take notes, letting them ask questions and forcing judges and lawyers to write jury instructions so that they are comprehensible to those who are not members of the bar. In his book Adler suggests that those instructions be given at the beginning of a trial instead of at the end, so that “juries can learn the rules before they play the game.”

But perhaps there is also a better way to sell jury duty to those called to its service. In voir dire in that courtroom in New York, when a juror invoked human nature to explain an understandable bias, one of the attorneys replied, “Throw human nature out the window.” But that’s not exactly right. Serving well on a jury requires the highest level of human nature, the part that is thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic and fair. In this self-help age, if someone offered a short course that would teach you to better find, use and value those qualities in yourself, thousands would plunk down good money to enter that particular lecture hall, confident that what they would learn would make them better parents, partners, workers, people.

What if that lecture hall is really a courtroom? What if we found a way in our everyday lives to listen to all the facts, to refuse to judge by appearance or charm alone, to seek to understand the rules and to apply them fairly? What if it turned out, in avoiding jury service, that we were avoiding one of our best chances at becoming, not only better citizens, but better human beings? That old standby of democracy de Tocqueville said it so eloquently that it bears repeating: “By obliging men to turn their attention to other affairs than their own, it rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.”

© 2001 Newsweek, Inc. (reprinted w/ permission; this copyright & acknowledgement must accompanying any reprint; no commercial use allowed.)

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