Shoftim: Righteous justice

justice_iconYou may be familiar with the line from this week’s parasha, Shoftim, “Justice justice shall you pursue…tzedek tzedek tirdof”   It is one of the more famous statements about justice that the Torah has given the world,  like the one that’s written on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and all its inhabitants thereof” from Leviticus 25.

But that’s not the one that caught my eye this week.  It’s from the same section as “tzedek tzedek tirdof”.  I noted the verse that begins the parasha, “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 righteous justice” (Deut17:18) What is righteous justice?  Rashi (11th c France) said it meant that we should have judges that not only have the competency to know the law, but the righteousness needed to rule well.  The text could have just said, “rule with justice” , but seems to add a layer of meaning with the adjective, “righteous.”  There is more to being a judge than just knowing the law.

Shortly thereafter, we get a description of what another kind of leader should look like in the Land, a king.  He should be a local, not a foreigner, a guy who doesn’t have a lot of wives or horses, not too wealthy, and one who has by his side, “mishneh Torah”, translated by JPS as “a copy of the Teaching.”  Again, Rashi says that means he should have two scrolls, one in storage and one that goes with him as he travels, but Onkelos (1st century convert who wrote an entire translation/interpretation of Torah into Aramaic) says the word “mishneh” means more of a discussion than a straightforward copy.    The king should be engaging in discourse.

I have in my notes for this section, “The discourse takes the place of the Instruction.  Human interaction with the Law changes the Law.” (Yes, I do write notes like this)

Human interaction with the Law changes the Law.  We’ve seen this before; just a few weeks ago, we re-read the story of Zelophechad’s daughters, when the Law was set out for inheritance, but the reality on the ground, of a man with only daughters, required Moses (and God!) to change the laws to be more just.  Here, God (through Moses) was acting as the kind of judge God wants us to have.  It’s not enough to know the law, but one must apply it with righteousness, compassion, reality, connection to the people whom these laws actually affect.  And, thousands of years of interaction with the Law, in the form of Talmud, continued commentary, scholars and righteous wrestling, the Law has changed, too.

Today, as then, we have different kinds of leaders, both judges and national rulers.  Our rulers help choose judges.  We choose the rulers, and we have to take the teaching of Torah seriously in this regard, not as a theocracy, but as a guide to what makes a society the best it can be.  We need rulers who appoint judges who not only know the law, but can apply that law with righteousness, ones that can foresee how actual people are affected by their rulings.  Compassion, reality, perspective, ideals and the touchstone of righteousness are all crucial components for leadership.  Choose wisely.  Rashi, as usual, was right.

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