Know that when you are at your worst and when you are at your best, God is your witness. Know that when you make a commitment, your words are not empty; they are promises being made before a greater power.
Earlier this summer, Maryland Governor Wes Moore spoke at a live recording of Slate’s “Political Gabfest,” sitting on the Bimah at 6th & I Historic Synagogue, in front of an ark holding the Torahs and underneath these very words — “know before whom you stand.” There, he spoke about increasing opportunities and creating wraparound services for young people. One of the hosts asked him about a policy in the state of Maryland to automatically charge children as adults when they are accused of certain crimes. Governor Moore responded that we will “never be able to arrest, criminalize, or sentence our way out of” the problems that face young people in Maryland.
Governor Moore knows before whom he stands. As governor, he stands not only before God, but before the people of Maryland. The people of Maryland have the power to hold elected officials accountable to their actions and to their words — it is not enough to speak eloquently on the bimah; elected officials must match their actions to the values they proclaim.
When local prosecutors and other elected officials clamor about holding kids accountable, kids who are charged with crimes and sentenced in adult court, they are forgetting before whom they stand. The children they scapegoat don’t have the power to vote — because of their age — and so the elected leaders discount them, treat them as threats rather than as constituents and human beings. This is an affront to Jewish values.
According to Rabbinic Jewish tradition, God has 7 names. The name Elohim is associated with the attribute of justice while the name Adonai is associated with the attribute of mercy. In the first verse of the Torah God is referred to as Elohim, a sign that God’s intention was to create the world with justice alone. But God perceived that with only justice the world could not endure. And so, in the second chapter of the Torah, God is referred to as Adonai Elohim, God of justice and God of mercy (Rashi on Genesis 1:1). The world itself was created with both justice and mercy.
For Governor Moore, local prosecutors, and the rest of Maryland’s elected leaders, it is not enough to dispense justice. As we stand before God and the people of Maryland, we must, each of us, also embody mercy. Sentencing children as if they were adults is neither just nor merciful. The Youth Equity and Safety Act (The YES Act) is a bill that will encourage the state of Maryland to sentence kids as kids, allowing for proper social services and rehabilitation, the very wraparound services that the Governor has committed to. And yet, the Governor and the General Assembly have not acted to move this just, merciful legislation forward.
Governor, legislators, elected prosecutors: know before whom you stand: a just and merciful God, your constituents, and the people who have asked you to lead with your values — not with fear mongering. When the General Assembly convenes in January, do your part to pass the YES Act and treat kids as kids. Create a Maryland filled with both justice and mercy.
JUFJ’s Youth Justice Working Group has its first meeting on Wednesday, August 23 at 7:30 PM on Zoom. Click the button below to RSVP for the meeting, and contact our Maryland organizer Elianna Cooper to learn more about this campaign.