Shoftim: Pursuing Justice

scales of justiceTzedek tzedek tirdof….Justice justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.  (Deut 16:20)

The Torah doesn’t mince words.  Neither does it repeat words unnecessarily, so there must be something to be learned from the fact that the word “justice” is used together in this week’s parasha, Shoftim.   One can almost feel the urgency behind the words, especially when the word “tirdof” (pursue) is used.  Torah doesn’t say “justice, justice you shall do” or “Justice justice you shall work towards”;  it’s pursue.  Get on with it, and don’t give up.

But still, why say “justice” twice?  Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud had thoughts about it.  Rabbi Ashi (first editor of the Babylonian Talmud, lived in Babylonia and re-established the Great Academy) said the first one refers to decisions based on strict law, and the second refers to decisions based on compromise.

Other rabbis referred to the distinction between letter of the law and spirit of the law, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with Biblical law…they based their judgments strictly upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b)  The rabbis suggested that, when a case was ended, the judges had to ask themselves, simply, “Was justice served?”, and if not, they needed to go back and look for the spirit of the law.

When you pair these thoughts with the latter part of the verse, “…that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.”, it’s clear that not just our survival in the Land that is at stake, but our ability to thrive there.

We would do well to ask ourselves, here and in Israel, whether justice is being pursued these days.  As of this writing, there is a cease fire between Israel and Gaza, at last.  Thousands of people on both sides of the war have been killed, injured and displaced from their homes.  Thousands of people on both sides have been scarred and damaged inside their hearts by having to live in fear and danger.  Once again, Israel and the Palestinians are faced with the need to figure out next steps.  Now is a good time to think about “tzedek tzedek tirdof “ in order to continue thriving in the Land

The occupation must end.  Call it compromise, call it the answer, “No” to the question of whether or not justice is being served, call it the spirit over the letter of the law, but it must end.  It is distorting the pursuit of justice, for it takes place under an unjust situation.  The rabbis said strict adherence to the law becomes destructive, for we begin to worship the law itself, not the effect or purpose of the law.  The Israeli government, and those who support it unconditionally, keep the letter of the law (or substitute the word “policy” here) in a death grip, choking off the pursuit of justice.  Using the strictest interpretation of the law, but arriving at an unjust conclusion, is not the just society Torah envisions.

This week’s parasha reminds us that the law is there to create a harmonious, productive and above all, a just society.  We can’t thrive when we are trying to build a just society on top of injustice.  As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”    The bombs have stopped for now;  now is the time to pursue justice, justice.



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