What is justice? What does it mean to be living in a just society? What would that look like? And how do we know when we are acting justly or when we fail to meet that loftiest of goals?
From the very first word of this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (judges), we are clued into the fact that justice, fairness and the rights of all will be the main themes of our reading.
Judges are told not to take bribes or play favorites, kings are told to have strict limits on their power and influence, and the Levi’im are commanded to establish cities of refuge and to prevent revenge upon those who have harmed others by accident.
Even the famous quote, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”), comes from Deuteronomy 16:20, right in the middle of this Torah portion.
Rabbis throughout history have commented on this verse. Some focus on the repetition of the word tzedek saying that we must not only search for justice, but we must pursue it using means that are also, in themselves, just.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, a 19th century Hasidic teacher also known as the Gerrer Rebbe and the S’fat Emet, has an interesting reading of this verse. He recounts a midrash that states that before God created humanity, God gathered the Heavenly Court to help God decide whehter introducing this new creation into the world would be a good idea. They took a vote, and the majority of the angels recommended that people not be created because they would not be peaceful and would more likely lie, steal, cheat and act cruelly toward one another.
The S’fat Emet’s interpretation is that people are naturally selfish and hurtful, and that it takes real effort to be considerate of the needs of others. If one is to act justly, one must be a rodef, one who pursues them with all their heart and all their might.
But how can we answer this call to pursue justice, to work against our own selfish and immediate interest in order to make a just society that equally benefits others as well as ourselves? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the modern age, tried to describe the way that the path of justice intersects with our understanding of the world in his masterwork, “God in Search of Man” (p. 290):
“We live by the conviction that acts of goodness reflect the hidden light of God’s holiness. His light is above our minds but not beyond our will. It is within our power to mirror His unending love in deeds of kindness …”
Our actions have profound effects. We have sadly seen the harm that others can wreak if their selfishness, hatred and violent urges are loosed on society again this past Shabbat when seven people were killed and 22 were injured in a horrible bout of gun violence in west Texas.
If I choose not to do what is right and good for others, I not only hurt them, but I actually dissuade them from treating me fairly in the same ways that I was not acting justly toward them. By doing so, I push myself toward being a more callous human being and our society further from the light of justice. We are certainly not responsible for all the woes of the world, but neither are we free from responsibility to those around us.
As we begin the month of Elul and draw closer to the High Holidays, it is my sincerest wish that we work to make that just and equitable world our sages envisioned into a reality. I pray that we can live honestly with ourselves and others, and push always to make our community and our world a more just and compassionate one.
I wish that violence would never again wreak havoc on another person, family or community and that we can take the steps we need on the path of justice to ensure that all lives are kept safe, and that all people are held sacred.
This year, let our future be in our own hands.
Rabbi Scott Shafrin is associate rabbi at Kol Rinah and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.