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Justice, Justice

This week’s Parsha, Shoftim, begins with this famous declaration:

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof —

Justice, justice thou shalt pursue. Deuteronomy 16:20

This is one of the central declarations of the Torah, echoed in many other instructions. For example:

You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Decide justly between the Israelite and the stranger alike. Take no bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, shall you pursue. (Exodus 23:8)

The pursuit of justice has, from the beginning, been a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Perhaps our origin as slaves sensitized us to this principle. Over the millennia, a deeply thoughtful, detailed, and sensitive discussion emerged as generations of Jewish thinkers expanded and expounded upon the question of what it means to treat people justly and fairly.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. In true Jewish fashion, let’s take this phrase apart one word at a time, and see what insights emerge. We begin with the word “tzedek.” Hebrew is a language based on root words; out of the root, many words are created, all of which share a cluster of related meanings. “Tzedek” means “justice” or “righteousness,” that is, doing the right thing. One of its close relatives is “tzedakah,” usually translated in English as “charity.” Linguistically and conceptually, however, there is a critical distinction between the terms. “Charity” is derived from the Latin Caritas, which means “love” or “regard.” Charity is an act of love, of giving freely. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an act of justice, understood by Jews to be a duty. The intention of giving tzedakah is to help manifest a basic Jewish goal: to enable every person to live with dignity, because every person has been created in the image of God. If you can give out of love, all the better, says Jewish law; but you give first of all because it is the right thing to do.

There is another word from the same root that you may recognize — “tzaddik.” A tzaddik, a righteous person, is one who has embodied the quality of tzedek, treats people equitably, pursues justice as a matter of course. A tzaddik understands that all humans are reflections of the Divine and has placed himself or herself entirely in service of bringing tzedek into the world.

The second word, “tirdof,” means “pursue.” Tzedek, justice, in the Jewish view, is an inherent quality of God, a fundamental aspect of the universe, an ideal for which we humans strive but can never perfectly achieve. We are not God, and we are not called upon to realize some perfect state of righteousness. The world is morally complex, with multiple sides to every story, and we are not blessed with any Divine ability to perceive all perspectives at once and thus grasp the truth. Only the Universal Mind, which we call Adonai, has that ability. Our perspective is, by definition, limited, hence our apprehension of true justice is always suspect.

Nonetheless, we Jews still claim that there is an impeccable standard of tzedek — and that we must pursue it. Human beings fulfill their true nature by participating in the pursuit of justice and seeing to it that all others are treated equitably, with dignity and respect. There is no final arrival (at least not until the Messiah comes, so say some); it is the pursuit in which we are commanded to engage.

That is a central reason why we Jews gather during the High Holy Days: to commit once again to our pursuit of doing the right thing, even though we know we will fall short. We will continue to attempt the impossible. That is what God wants of us, and we are forgiven for our failings.

Finally, why is “tzedek” repeated in the phrase, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof ”? Would it not have been sufficient for the Torah to declare, “Tzedek, tirdof” — “Justice you shall pursue”? Resh Lakish, who lived and taught in Tiberias in the third century CE, taught that the repetition of tzedek in the phrase we are analyzing is to remind us to be deliberate and careful in judgment, revisiting and reviewing the case and not rushing into a decision. (In Jewish law, a bet din, or rabbinical court, waits until the next day before delivering a guilty verdict.) Similarly, Maimonides, living in Egypt in the eleventh century CE, taught that the repetition emphasizes the need to consult with others, garnering as many points of view as possible before reaching a decision.

Others have argued that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of the officials and the courts, but also of each individual. As was taught in the name of Rabbi Hiyya, a fourth-century scholar, “If a person is neither a scholar, nor a teacher, nor known for observing all the ritual commandments, but stands up to protest against evil, such a person is considered a blessing.”

Still others in the Talmud explain the repetition of “justice” to refer to the need for just compromise! It is understood that often two justified claims clash with each other; thus tzedek, tzedek. The rabbis explained that the repetition of tzedek teaches us that when two justified claims clash with each other, the just solution is for the parties to find a compromise between them.

Bakhya ben Asher, living in Spain in the twelfth century, taught that the double emphasis means justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.

In nineteenth-century Poland, Reb Yaakov Yitchak of P’shischa interpreted the word’s repetition to connote that the end does not justify the means: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of the worthy cause.”

All this, from one extra word! And here, in North America at the end of the twentieth century, the words still compel us. How do we pursue justice in our lives and in our society today? I must admit to a sense of despair and fatigue as I witness the political climate of our country. (I resonate these days with a line of Lily Tomlin’s: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”) What is happening to our society’s ideals of mutual responsibility? What can I do?

The wording of the mitzvah is very important now: We are commanded to pursue justice, even if the attainment of justice seems remote. Don’t give up; your actions make a difference. In the coming year, may we each reach beyond our sense of gloom or apathy to continue our sacred pursuit of creating a just and righteous civilization. Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

In fact, our days are filled with opportunities to treat people ethically and fairly, to give the benefit of the doubt, to stand up against injustice, to enact just solutions, to do the right thing. In every human exchange, with loved ones and with strangers, with clients and with customers, with employees and with bosses, we can make it our goal to bring more tzedek into the world. I wish each of you a sweet, healthy, growing year, and may each of us give tzedakah, pursue tzedek, and strive to become a tzaddik. In private or in public, in large or small ways, may each of us keep choosing to do the right thing.

—Rosh Hashanah 5756