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!
Not long ago, an educator friend of mine innocently asked a young student (in a public setting with a microphone in hand), "What is a sukah?" The child burst out, "A cardboard shoe box with twigs on the top." Microphone off!
United States Senator Tom Daschele was introduced at an AIPAC luncheon in San Francisco as a "model senator." He remarked that his wife had looked up the dictionary definition of the word model and found that it means "a smaller representation of the real thing."
Ask any number of people what is tzedakah, and they will reply, "The coins you put in the box." I suppose if we put the coins in a shoe box with twigs on the top, we would create a sukah-tzedakah box.
This week's Torah portion, Shofetim, contains the divine bidding, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." Does this mean "coins, coins, you shall deposit"? No, this is the word tzedek, from the root tzadei-dalet-kof. All Hebrew words derive from a root, most often a three-letter combination. We can see how a Hebrew word grows by observing how it spreads from its roots and branches out into its meanings.
If you were an ancient Israelite shopping for cucumbers, you would bring your selection to the ancestor of all checkout counters and have your produce weighed. Leviticus 19:35-36 is your guide to honesty, for it commands us, "You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or quantity. Just balances, just weights..." The scales must be tzedek, correct and of right balance.
If you broke the most ancient of traffic laws and were sent to court, you would hope that the judge had read Deuteronomy 16:18: "Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with due justice, a mishpat tzedek." You would want the correct and proportional penalty in balance with the infraction.
If you spent a day reading a selection of ketubot, "Jewish wedding documents"; wedding invitations; and even the inscription on wedding rings, you would certainly find this verse from Hosea 2:21: "And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness [tzedek], and in judgment, and in grace, and in mercies."
You know that a sukah is not a shoe box. A shoe box is but a scale model of a sukah. Tzedakah, the female noun form of tzedek, is not a coin-in-a-box. That is also a scale model of the real thing. So what is the real thing?
How can we understand "Justice, justice shall you pursue"? All three of our citings have something in common. What is it? A hint: All things need to be in harmonious balance with one another: the fruit on the scale and the stones used to measure their weight; the sentence of the judge and the crime committed; and the relationship of God and Israel in Hosea, often used as the relationship between bride and groom. Why then must you add more tzedek in the world? What has been thrown out of balance? How many ways are there to set things in balance again?
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