How is it possible to interpret the imperative Tzedek, tzedek tirdof--"Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20), which we encounter this week in Parashat Shofetim?
Would it not have been sufficient to say the word "justice" just once?
We would like to share four insights on "Justice, justice...." The very reiteration of the word unlocks opportunities for us to expand the application of justice in our time and in our lives.
When Moses called for "Justice, justice...," he did so deliberately. Sometimes when a word is said only once, the import of that word might be disregarded or overlooked. When "justice" is repeated again, however, there can be no mistake: We must be moved to chase after it. Our pursuit cannot cease until we acquire justice. Then we are obligated to muster all of our power to introduce it into the midst of our community.
When Moses exclaimed "Justice, Justice...," the occasion arose for the individual to be addressed separately from the entire people. The first time Moses cried "Justice," the word was directed at the heart of each individual human being. The second time, it was aimed at the whole community. Each woman and man was being urged to pool her or his sense of justice and thereby help create a society that practiced just behavior.
When Moses cried out "Justice, Justice...," the principle that justice could never be one-sided was evoked. Equity, fairness, and impartiality were revealed and applied to all matters.
When Moses taught us "Justice, Justice...," the instruction compelled us to go and study what "justice" means. Knowing what was just, however, was only the initial step. Our understanding of the term could not be a philosophical exercise with no positive action. When "justice" was repeated a second time, it became our summons to pursue justice so "that you may thrive and occupy the land...." (Deuteronomy 16:20)
In addition, the powerful verb "shall pursue" emphasizes and accents the nature of the divine demand. God's address to us, through Moses, is to a community of people in an imperfect state of being. "Justice" is not a concept that can be bestowed upon us, nor is it an ethereal notion. Rather, it is a dynamic possibility that we must seek each day and in each circumstance. Without justice, genuine empathy in the form of mercy could not evolve.
Insights flow from this verse and lead us farther on the journey for justice tempered by compassion. In studying this text, each of us is capable of using his or her own insights derived from this verse and adding his or her own commentary. Moses' distinctive message calls to us now. And God waits for us to respond.
During my sabbatical in Israel, I had the immense good fortune to study with Nehama Leibowitz in her home. Each day of class we sat, waiting for her lo if we had answered incorrectly or for her satisfied smile if we had struggled to finally "see" a significant point in a passage. In addition to Torah, we learned many stories--many trickim--in order to become better teachers. The entire class knew that we were in the presence of a "righteous one," one who was filled with wisdom.
With regard to Shofetim, Nehama told us that we must become accustomed to keeping our own house in order and live in such a way that we would know how to choose our public officials wisely: "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)
According to Rashi, those who decide the law are magistrates and those who govern the people according to the command of the judges are officials. Is this the first instance of separation of power? It seems that in some sense the people will now have a judicial and a legislative branch of government. The verse goes on to say "in all the settlements [in each city] that Adonai your God is giving you, throughout your tribes." Is this the first example of decentralized government? The magistrates and officials should be chosen for their wisdom because they must judge the people with righteous judgment. Rashi tells us that they should be righteous people, experts in their field. Is this the first time that we are made aware of the difficulty of finding a righteous judge? Is this the forerunner to the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing that takes place before that body chooses a judge? Is it possible that our government is based on verse 18?
Deuteronomy 16:19 states: "You shall not judge unfairly. You shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just." This tells us that we must respect all people in the same way--whether they are rich or poor, powerful or weak, friend or foe. We may not accept gifts, bribes, or fees. Even the most righteous, honest, and wise person can be blinded by a gift. Before we choose our leaders, we must first comprehend how to be righteous ourselves. To choose a judge constitutes a very significant obligation. Is this the first time in history that we are called upon to think about the importance of voter registration as an awesome responsibility? The verse indicates that we are responsible for insuring that our judges act fairly. There may even come a time when we will be asked to be judges. Will we be prepared? Will we be able to defend our own names in court? Have "land deals" and the outside investments of our leaders been investigated with such scrutiny because of the principles contained in verse 19? Should our government develop a code of conduct based on verse 19? Should we look at ourselves before we judge our leaders?
Only then, after we have received instructions about whom we should appoint, what kind of people our magistrates and officials should be, and what kind of people we must be, will we be ready to receive the ultimate command of verse 20: "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving to you." Rashi tells us that if we appoint honorable judges, that will be sufficient to keep Israel alive. From these verses we can extrapolate that we, too, must be honorable in order to teach values to the next generation and to deserve to inherit the land for them. These verses also remind us that the land does not belong to us. It is God's gift to us: We are only its stewards. They direct us to pursue justice in our homes, our businesses, our schools, and our congregations.
Finally, if we live our lives according to these three verses, how would we change? What would we celebrate? Of what would we be proud? What would we do differently so that we would have the right to inherit the land that Adonai our God has given to us? Please, God, let us begin today.
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