Friday, September 6, 2019 /6 Elul, 5779
Parashat Shof’tim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
As the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses makes an important declaration:
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” he says, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
We often translate the word tzedek as justice, but Moses knew the word encompassed far more. Tzedek reflects a sense of righteousness, and obligation to our fellow human being, whether that person is rich or poor, an enemy or a friend. It demands us to be vigilant, selfless, compassionate, humble, and community-minded.
Ibn Ezra teaches that tzedek is twice mentioned in the phrase “Justice, justice you shall pursue” in order to remind us that we must seek justice whether doing so benefits us or harms us. Tzedek demands that we do what is better for the community, even if our actions place us at a disadvantage.
In case of a poor of a man who offers his cloak for collateral, Moses explains that we must return it by nightfall in order that the man can sleep, even though doing so is not in our own best interest. (Deuteronomy 24:12-13) Tzedek demands that all justice is mitigated with compassion. Moses understood that legal justice alone was not enough. A great society must also have mercy, compassion and understanding. Tzedek requires something more than justice; it compels us to do what is right.
In his introduction to the Mishnah, Rambam writes of honorable men who had the wherewithal to see that another was more correct than they. Quickly they conceded and recanted their opinion. This, he explained, is the meaning of “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
What would our world be like, if we were all humble enough to admit our mistakes, and wise enough to accept a more worthy conclusion? What would our world be like if each of us could overcome our own biases, so every person could be judged fairly? What would our world be like if each of us were most concerned with the well-being of the greater whole? What would our world be like if all justice was mitigated with compassion? This was the kind of world Moses wanted for his people.
Moses was wise enough to know that his dream may never become a reality. He did not say “Justice, justice you shall create!” Instead he said “Justice, justice you shall pursue!”
Each of us can pursue tzedek, working to create a community-minded society full of impartiality, justice, compassion, and humility. In fact, Moses teaches that it is our responsibility to do so. But as Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot “It is not your responsibility to complete the task.” That is why we have one another.
Rabbi Cassi Kail