Woven throughout the text of this week's parashah, Shofetim (the word means "magistrates" or "officials") are many mitzvot directed at the creation of good government and a fair legal system. There are rules about courts of law, about the limits to be placed on a king's power, and much more. In keeping with this theme, the third verse of the portion declares, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deut. 16:20)
The word tzedek, "justice," contains the same Hebrew root as the word tzedakah (which explains why "charity" is a mistranslation of tzedakah: "charity" means "caring," while tzedakah means "righteousness"). But there is much more here to ponder. Why does the Torah tell us to "pursue" justice rather than simply commanding us to "do justice" or "be just"? What is true justice, and is it even achievable in the real world? And then there is an obvious case of what our sages called lashon yeterah, "redundant language": Why is the word tzedek, "justice," repeated?
A chasidic sage, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf of Zbarazh, taught that "justice, justice" refers not to real righteousness, not to tzedek, but rather to tzidkut, "self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness." The double use of the word tzedek thus refers to one who "doth protest too much" about how righteous or pious he or she is. If you self-consciously strive too hard to be a tzadik, a "righteous and holy person," you risk falling prey to a "trick" of your evil impulse, taught Ze'ev Wolf. So, tzedek, tzedek, in his wonderful reading of the verse, refers to those times when we become so intransigently convinced of our own rightness-in politics, in an argument, in Jewish spiritual life-that it blinds us to the grain of truth in other points of view. Tzidkut, "self-righteousness," causes the negation of tzedek, real justice!
It's like the story of two European shtetl Jews who'd had a falling out over a long-overdue debt. One day, the debtor suddenly declared to his creditor, "Yankel, good news! I'm leaving for America next week. My relatives in Chicago are wiring me money for the journey. At last, I can repay you."
Yankel responded, "Ach, Yossel-forget about it! For that amount of money, it's not worth changing my opinion of you."
How can we avoid tzidkut? A rabbinic school professor at Hebrew Union College told us with delight of a "little Litvak" (meaning a stereotypically skeptical, rational Lithuanian Jew) who sat on his shoulder and who, whenever he got too sure of himself, whispered in his ear in Yiddish, "Takeh? ('Really?'). Do you really believe that? Are you so sure of yourself, your opinions, your rightness?" We could all do, at certain times, with that "little Litvak" whispering in our ear, cautioning us about dismissing the feelings and opinions of those around us. Shabbat Shalom!