On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Shof’tim: Demanding Justice

At the core of being Jewish is a fundamental demand for justice. Demanding justice involves asking others to work toward a more just world, but it also involves asking ourselves to do that work. In Parashat Shof’tim, we are introduced to the three-word phrase that has inspired bookshelves of scholarship and controversy: “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” In English, the phrase translates to “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Why would this simple, short phrase incite such controversy? Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss the controversy, the significance of the repetition of the word tzedek, and more. 

Five ways to listen:


Welcome to episode 33 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. A podcast which is presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism. And subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about parashat Shoftim team this week. He asks how we can make sure that we are vigilant about even the small acts of justice. And how we can not only pursue justice, but run after it. 

This week we focus our attention on parashat Shoftim. Shoftim literally means judges. Shofet in the singular, shoftim in the plural. And, in the opening verses of parashat Shoftim, we have one of the most inspired verses of Torah. It says, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” Justice, justice you shall pursue. And there are literally book shelves and book shelves of interpretation and of explication of what does that mean. One very, very simplistic level, there's one critical scholar that says, well, it's a dittography Nobody listening to this podcast remembers what “ditto” is. A ditto is a way of making copies. So a dittography suggests that, the reason it says “tzedek” twice is the scribe was writing and he got confused about whether he'd already written tzedek, so it was written a second time. That makes no spiritual or moral sense to us.

Tzedek tzedek is written twice for emphasis. To remind us of the centrality of justice in our tradition. In some of the commentaries it is suggested that the doubling of tzedek is that, not only are we to pursue justice, but we are to pursue justice in a just way. The means are as important as the ends. And it's very, very key that the word, the phrase, is tied together with the word “tirdof.” Justice, justice you shall run after. Justice isn't going to land in your lap. It's not going to just happen. The only way we will have a just society is if each of us works really hard to try and find, in our own personal practice and in the interactions that we have every day, to do our work according to justice. 

There's simply no doubt that Judaism is not only about study, and about spiritual practice, and holy days, and delicious foods, and a wonderful and powerful set of narratives given to us by our history and by our ancestors. But at the core of being Jewish is a fundamental demand for justice. And I see in so many iterations today of religion, that is lost, that fundamental obsession of really running after and pursuing justice. To only have all the other elements is to miss what is so fundamental. 

We have amazing teachings in our tradition about how we do that justice work. The famous story or midrash about Rabbi Hanina who had a tree in his backyard where the branches literally went over the fence into his neighbor's yard. Well one day a man came into Rabbi Hanina’s court and said, “I want to bring a grievance against my neighbor.” And he told a story about his backyard where there was a tree in his neighbor's yard. And the branches came over and were dropping leaves and things into his yard. And he said, “I want to force my neighbor to take care of that tree.” Rabbi Hanina listened to the case and he said, “You know, I'm going to defer that. That's a very important question, but I'm going to defer that. Come back tomorrow.” 

Rabbi Hanina went home with that minute and he, literally took out clippers. And he clipped the tree in his own backyard that was hanging over his neighbor's fence into their yard. And then that man who had come before him came back the next day and said, “I have to tell you, I'm pretty mad that you couldn't decide this case yesterday. Why did it have to wait?” And he said, “Well, some things just have to wait.” He said, “Well I rule that your neighbor does have to cut his tree. That would be absolutely the moral and the just thing to do.” And the complainant said, “Well, Rabbi Hanina. I've got to tell you, you're giving this ruling, but I understand in your backyard that you have a tree.” He said, “I want you to do exactly as I have done.” And so the complainant went to Rabbi Hanina house, looked and saw the tree beautifully clipped, and realized that, not only did Rabbi Hanina have to delay a day, he had to make sure his own house was in order. 

Justice isn't what I ask everybody else to do. It's what I ask of myself. It's the commitments that I'm willing to make that may seem like they're small. But if we live in a society where we're really careful about even the small acts of justice that we are vigilant about. Why then, we have a fighting chance to shape a broader community, where justice isn't a hope. It's not just a verse. It's a practice. It's a discipline of every day, and we hold our leaders accountable. The opening of the parashah talks about the leaders of a community that are to be the ones who are custodians of justice, teachers of justice, and people who embody justice. 

So when we have all of these Jewish debates about, how are we going to ensure a robust Jewish future? How do we get a Jewish community that's more learned, more observant? I think those are all really important questions. But I will never allow that discussion to take place where we don't, at the very same moment, say, “Well, what is the observance, and what is the study leading us to do?” This week's parashah reminds us that our study, and our spiritual practice, and our observance of holidays, and our deep love of our community, is so that we might know and live more whole, more just, and more compassionate lives. It starts with this repetition: tzedek tzedek

It is absolutely central. It is absolutely a fundamental requirement. And if we just hope for a just world, we will never move closer to it. We don't just hope. We act. We hold ourselves accountable. We model in our personal lives. And we are honest when we fall short. And then we work in the very, very fabric of our lives, in the neighborhoods that reside in, and the communities that we are part of. So that we can make real this prophetic hope, this prophetic obligation, that we, every day, would not just be getting through a day, and not just accumulating more time. But we would use our time, our energy, and our religious tradition to wake us up. Make us clear. And make us more ready to do what Rabbi Hanina did, which was start with ourselves and let that justice spread out until we have a world that God dreamt of. A world where all of us live with respect. All of us hold ourselves, and our community, and our people, and our world according to the justice that God is held to. 

And that final thought is when Abraham is challenging God who's going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He says, Abraham, “Will not the judge of righteousness, of justice, not do justly?” Even God is held to be accountable for administering, and leading, and guiding a just world. So none of us gets a by. All of us are obligated. Tzedek tzedek tirdof. From God, to you, to me, to all of us, a just world. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.