Parashat Shofetim’s call for justice is poignant as ever


On the ‘wish list’ for our synagogue sanctuary is to have a pasuk, a sentence or phrase from a Jewish text tastefully sculpted onto the wall above the ark. One of our top choices is from Shofetim, this week’s Torah portion: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue!”

Now, I realize that it is quite possible for different people to have somewhat different connotations when they hear that same word, ‘justice.’ Some might think about the imposition of deserved consequences for a given behavior, as in ‘Justice must be served.’ Others tend to associate it more with the idea of equality, as in ‘Without justice, there can be no peace.’ Now, these ideas are obviously connected, but they are both large enough to merit separate categories.

There are voluminous Jewish teachings in both of these areas. Which to emphasize? One way, consistent with Jewish hermeneutics, is to look into the phrase and notice that the word is repeated. This, to the rabbis, was no accident. So, perhaps the first time is for the one shade of justice, and the second is for the other.

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While the idea of making sure there are consequences for actions is an important one (as long as the concept of compassion is mixed in), if the words ‘tzedek, tzedek, tirdof’ were in fact words that were emblazed in front of me as I prayed, it is equality that would be on my mind and in my heart. After all, the word tzedek is the foundation for tzedakah, a more familiar Hebrew word, one that suggests the sharing of resources to try to bring about more fairness.

The other word in the phrase is tirdof, traditionally translated as ‘to pursue.’ But in the original language, there is much more of a feeling for immediacy, as in ‘chasing after.’ This is about fast action. It is not about wanting justice, it is about racing to do everything possible make sure that it happens soon, as in now.

Way back in ancient days, the biblical prophets described a gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ “Shame on you who live at ease in Zion, untroubled on the hills of Samaria. I loathe your arrogance and your magnificent houses …You lie on ivory beds, lolling on your couches, defrauding the poor and robbing the needy (Amos)…adding house to house and field to field until there is room for no one but you to dwell in the land (Isaiah).”

Which is why it was heartening to see today’s news, in which 40 billionaires took up Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s call for them to pursue justice by pledging to give half of their wealth away to charity. Which is why we at CRC took the goal of health care reform as a moral charge to lobby and organize and march until the playing field is leveled and we are caring for the common good.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Ready, set, go!

Rabbi Randy Fleisher serves Central Reform Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.