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Torah Commentary
Shof'tim (August 10, 2013)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

THE PORTION OF Shof’tim begins with Moses commanding the people to appoint judges and magistrates to govern the people. Those who exercise justice must do so fairly, impartially and without taking bribes. These are the core precepts that the judge must follow in order to render a decision that is evenhanded and objective and not tainted with any hint of bias. Then Moses exhorts, “Justice, justice (tzedek) shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord is giving you.”

This famous injunction, which underscores the centrality of justice, righteousness and truth in the Jewish canon of values and in the social order, has become the mantra for social activism. It also has been the touchstone for much rabbinic exegesis and homiletic examination.

In its immediate context, the charge to pursue justice is addressed to the judges. They must strive rigorously to achieve unimpugnable justice. Only that can become the basis for a society that will thrive and flourish in the Land. Rashi, citing the Sifrei on Deuteronomy, puts the onus for achieving justice on the people — they must “Seek after a proper court of law.” In other words, a fair court begins with the appointment of wise judges; choosing the right people is the predicate for the establishment of equity and righteousness.

Repetition of the word “justice,” as a literary device, emphasizes its importance. Repetition also serves to amplify its meaning. Rabbi Pinchas Peli, the Israeli poet and philosopher, understands the repetition as instructive on the way justice is meted out. As if to say, “Justice [in] justice [in just ways] shall you pursue.” Pursuing the ideal of justice means that the process itself must be just. The ends cannot justify the means; the means too must be correct and ethical. We must pursue justice with justice. The repetition also serves to remind the judge that every question has two sides, that a just verdict must identify and weigh the element of truth inherent in each side’s argument, and that a judge must shut out preconceptions and listen attentively, with an open mind, to the claims of each party.

The pursuit of justice is also an individual responsibility. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Alter of Ger, the 19th century Chasidic rabbi, focuses on the word “pursue” (tirdof). For the Sefat Emet, “justice” is synonymous with “truth,” and “the main thing,” he affirms, “is to seek truth.” Justice/truth may be elusive, frustrating and ultimately unattainable. Our task, however, is the pursuit itself. In a world that often seems rife with injustice, lying and deceit, pursuit means that we cannot remain idle, standing powerless on the sidelines. We are charged with the ongoing responsibility of finding the path to justice/truth even though we may never fully reach the goal of ideal justice.

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