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Torah Commentary
Shof'tim (August 26, 2017)

In Pursuit of Justice

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the pleas of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. — Deuteronomy 16:18-20

Bettijane Eisenpreis

“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” God says to Moses in Parashat Shof’tim. Commentators have pointed out that the repetition of the word “justice” is intended to emphasize the importance of justice in the establishment of the Israelites’ new society. Also, the people are commanded to “pursue” justice, not to establish it. Perfect justice never will exist in this world, but that is not to say that people can ever stop aiming for it.

The 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17 of this year. Shortly thereafter, I was lucky enough to tune into the Brian Lehrer radio program to hear a repeat of Elizabeth Holtzman speaking about the Watergate hearings. Holtzman, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, from Brooklyn, was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that submitted three articles of impeachment to the House, and the chances of the articles being passed were overwhelming. Nixon decided to resign rather than risk impeachment.

I remembered that idealistic young congresswoman, as I remembered North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, who referred to himself as “just a country lawyer” and was much more than that. Ervin had chaired the Senate investigation in 1973 that led to the House Committee’s convening in 1974 and deciding to impeach the president. Holtzman described the incredibly long, detailed deliberations of the House Committee and the hundreds of pages of recommendations that resulted. Both the House and the Senate efforts were bipartisan and overwhelmingly in favor of holding Nixon accountable. The Watergate findings, Holtzman stressed, proved that no president is above the law of the United States. While she was disappointed deeply in President Ford’s pardon of Nixon, she remains proud of the work of the committee and its highly principled nature.

As vivid as my memories of Sam Ervin and Elizabeth Holtzman are, I must confess that I only vaguely remember the name of Peter Rodino, Democrat of New Jersey, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee on which Holtzman served. He seemed like a good guy, but that was about all I knew. What I did not know was that, when the committee was authorized, by a vote of 410 to 4, to conduct the investigation, Rodino said: “Whatever the result, whatever we conclude, let us now proceed with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor that the vast majority of the American people, and their children after them, will say: This was the right course. There was no other way.”

It is gratifying to know that there are some people, some like Elizabeth Holtzman of our own religious persuasion but many of other faiths as well, to whom “justice, justice shall you pursue” still is a precept that must be followed. Let us hope it is ever thus.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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