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Can Justice Be Real

  • Can Justice Be Real

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
D'var Torah By: 

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

  1. Do we follow the path of justice described in the Torah?
  2. Do you think that justice can be fair and impartial?
  3. Is justice the responsibility only of the judge?
  4. How do you personally pursue justice?
Justice, Jutice [and Love and Mercy] Shall You Pursue
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Zari M. Weiss

Have you ever been left off the invitation list of a friend's party and felt hurt or angry? Have you in your hurt lashed back at your friend, quick to cast judgment on his or her character? Or have you ever been the one who was judged harshly by others?

The truth is, we are quick to find fault in others (as well as in ourselves) and slower to find merit. All too often we judge harshly, without mercy or compassion for the individual and his or her human fallibility.

In this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, we read, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Justice, justice shall you pursue?." (Deuteronomy 16:20) According to the Torah, we Jews were given a special imperative: to emulate God in our own administration of justice. We read: "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice." (Deuteronomy 16:18) But the Torah also teaches us that justice by itself is not enough to sustain the world: God also requires mishpat tzedek, "righteous justice"-justice or judgment tempered by love and mercy, justice that recognizes the spark of the divine within each individual, even the alleged criminal. The Sages taught that God exhibits both of these qualities when acting in the world and in people's lives, as evidenced in the biblical text by the two major names for God: Elohim, representing the quality of justice, and Adonai, representing the qualities of love and mercy.

However, the pursuit of righteous justice is not limited to the legal sphere. It is also applicable in the interpersonal sphere, in our relations with those around us. "Consider what you do," writes Rashi, "and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the Holy One, Blessed Be God, were standing before you. That is the meaning of the phrase 'God is with you in giving judgment.'" (II Chronicles 19:6) Think how differently we might act if every time we were about to judge someone, to "pass sentence" on a person's behavior, we imagined God standing before us. Would we be so quick to pass harsh judgment, untempered by love or mercy?

According to Maimonides, we are obligated-indeed, commanded-to give someone the benefit of the doubt. For example, if we see someone doing something that could be interpreted either in a favorable way or just as likely in an unfavorable way, we are obligated to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. And if it seems to us that we should interpret the action in an unfavorable way, it is to our merit to give that person the benefit of the doubt. And if, in the end, the person deserved to be judged unfavorably, Maimonides teaches that we are forbidden to relate the matter to other people because such tale-telling is considered to be lashon hara, "an evil tongue."

In Jerusalem, there is a group of people that gathers regularly and discusses ways in which to judge people favorably in particular situations. Naive? Perhaps, but generous, too. As one pious person once noted, "We were given two eyes: one very powerful for introspection, so we should find within ourselves even our smallest faults; the other very weak, for viewing the faults in others. Only too often we switch their functions." (Love Your Neighbor, Zelig Pliskin, Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977)

Anyone can find fault with others. The mark of a righteous person is to be able to see the good qualities-even in the midst of the bad-in those around us.

To live in community, we must constantly judge behavior: Is this behavior right or wrong? As Jews, however, we must judge with mishpat tzedek, "righteous justice," tempering our judgment with love and mercy. We must conduct ourselves in every judgment, legal as well as interpersonal, as if the Holy One, Blessed Be God, were standing before us.

For Further Discussion

  1. Have you ever been judged harshly by others or judged others harshly?
  2. As you reflect on the past, are there situations that you might have responded to with a more loving and merciful eye?
  3. Are there times or circumstances in which one should not temper one's judgment or give another the "benefit of the doubt"?
Reference Materials: 

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164