Drash on Shoftim 2023
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
This week’s parsha, Shoftim, contains one of the most well-known Jewish imperatives that awakens our Jewish souls and impels us towards action. “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof – Justice Justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). Four questions come immediately to mind:
1) What is justice?
2) Why is justice written twice?
3) How do we pursue justice?
4) Why bother?
According to dictionary.com, justice is “…righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.” According to Wikipedia, “Justice, in its broadest sense, is the concept that individuals are to be treated in a manner that is equitable and fair.” According to the Mishna, justice is one of the foundational pillars of the world: “The world is balanced on three things: on justice, on truth, and on peace” (Pirkei Avot 1:18). Parshat Shoftim expounds upon the concept and actualisation of justice through the creation of a judicial system which demands honesty, impartiality in judgement, and fairness – both in our dealings with others and in the consequences we deliver (i.e., that the punishment fits the crime, or the response is proportionate to the trigger). Justice, first and foremost, is about doing what is right – or righting a wrong.
The rabbis go wild and crazy over the duplication of the word “Tzedek”. Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) suggested that the repetition of the word meant that justice should be pursued regardless of whether it brought a person profit or loss. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (AKA. Hida; 18th century Yerushalmi and European Musar commentator) suggested that if one hastens to give tzedakah, it is as if the person gave tzedakah twice, thus encouraging people to give tzedakah as soon as possible. Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Pshischa (18th century Polish commentator) posited that justice should be pursued justly; thus, both the goal (realising justice) and the means of pursuing that goal must be just, equitable, and fair (Greenberg, 1998). Leviticus Rabbah (25:1) spoke about Rabbi Aha and Rabbi Hiyya who commented on a person who was learned, observant, and of great renown who neglected to protest a wrong doing and was to be considered cursed, as well as a person who was not a scholar, nor a teacher, nor observant of the mitzvot, yet stood up and protested a wrongdoing, and was considered to be “a blessing”(Fields, 1993). Thus, the double word emphasises the importance of standing up for justice for ourselves and for others. According to Rabbi Harvey Fields, “correcting the evils originated by human beings was considered the highest ethical priority” (Fields, 1993, p. 141).
The pursuit of justice is much more difficult than it sounds. For herein lie all the rules around what to do and what not do, including who to listen to and who to tune out. So, it may seem obvious that we should not take bribes, lie about the worth of something and charge a little extra, pretend someone else’s work is our own, or blame someone for something they did not do. It is a little less obvious, or more challenging, to not be partial in judgement. How much more likely are we going to believe someone we know or care about than someone we don’t? How often do we accuse a child, sibling, or colleague of something that they had done in the past before we consider the possibility that this time, it wasn’t them? How often do we make assumptions or judgements about people, consciously (or unconsciously), based on their age, gender, race, nationality, or religion? How often do we “sit shtoom” (keep our mouths shut) when we see something we think is wrong, but say “none of our business”? How often do we walk by and not even notice the injustices, like people struggling to meet their basic needs because they are unable to secure employment, or because their skin is darker, or they have an accent, or they’re suffering from a mental or physical illness, or they are a single parent with no external support? The command for the proactive pursuit of justice calls upon us to be aware of our inherent biases, prejudices and favourtism, our greedy temptations, our fears of and irrational need for blame, and our insecurities and desire for positive recognition.
And finally, why bother? We’re generally not the type of Jews who are satisfied with “Because G-d said so.” However, the Torah does an incredible job enforcing its message, explaining why the pursuit of justice is important. It says: “you shall do to the one as the one schemed to do to the other. Thus, you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”(Deut. 19-19-21). In other words, we pursue justice to keep away evil, to keep from harming ourselves, others, and the environment that sustains us. We proactively find ways to pursue justice without delays, like giving tzedakah or volunteering to help equalise the scales and give back to those in need because we can. Each act of volunteering and giving tzedakah to create a fairer world where the needs of all people are being met on their terms, without judgement, based on their individual circumstances. Why bother? The Torah teaches us that each time we use our voice to speak up for those whose voices have been silenced or are overshadowed, we are a blessing. Likewise, each time we make space for others to speak, and truly hear what they have to say, we are pursuing justice justly. We do not like to be silenced. We do not like to be unfairly judged. We do not like to not be given a fair go.
As Hillel, the Elder said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). This is true justice. Go and pursue it!
Greenberg, A.Y., 1998. Torah Gems (Vol. 3). Yavneh Publishing House Ltd.
Fields, H. J. (1993). A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Numbers and Deuteronomy (Vol. 3). UAHC Press.