Our Torah portion this week, Shoftim, opens with a wishful vision of how the people of Israel will live when they finally arrive in the Land of Israel. A system of individuals-judges and officers-will be set up to administer justice to all who seek it. The opening verses contain a clear description about how these officials are to function. We are taught in Deuteronomy 16:19 that the judges and officers should be beyond reproach or personal compromise. Deuteronomy 16:20 issues the familiar instructions "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you."
So there you have it: The ultimate ideal of justice is that it is pure, and impartial. But do we believe that? Is this truly how justice is meted out in our society?
When the Torah teaches us about justice, it tries to make us see it as a concept that transcends the individual and is universally applied. This idea of shared-group norms may be a quality we have lost in our ever-increasingly individualized world. The justice described in Shoftim wasn't meant to be a mere expression of personal values among other equally valued opinions. No, the justice we see here is one that is fair, impartial, and universal, transcending the individual.
But why should we care how justice is defined or implemented? Why should we be concerned if justice is privatized or universal? The answer can be found in Deuteronomy 16:20 and the way in which we understand its full meaning. Usually when we look to this passage for guidance on the meaning of justice, we refer only to the first part of the instruction, "Justice, justice shall you pursue?." This first clause is a nice concept, but it is fairly generic and without form. That is why the Torah continues, "?that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you." One clause clearly relies on the other. The concept of justice in Torah is not merely a utopian or a generic wish. Rather, there are real and observable consequences to a society's actions. Following the path of justice gives a society the potential to survive in civil ways. The opposite choice-the denial of justice or a tainted justice system-leads society into chaos.
Ideals are clearly hard to realize, but without them we are adrift, without direction. Although the reality is hard to attain, a concept of justice as fair and impartial is a goal that we still embrace, even as we struggle to make it real. As Jews, we are to follow the path of Torah as it challenges us to continue to pursue the ideal. It is in the pursuit of the ideal that we move beyond ourselves, beyond our indifference, and come together to build a community that reflects the true value of justice. "Justice, justice shall you pursue?": May this ideal lead us all to action.
For Further Discussion
- Do we follow the path of justice described in the Torah?
- Do you think that justice can be fair and impartial?
- Is justice the responsibility only of the judge?
- How do you personally pursue justice?