Justice is both elusive and necessary


In this week’s parashah, Shof’tim, we read one of the most influential verses in the entire Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Our intensely emotional pursuit of justice has served as the subject of tireless discussions on the matter.

This insistence on justice has been hailed as the “foundation of Judaism.” God “loves justice” (Psalm 99:4) and “judges the world with righteousness, rules the peoples with equity” (Psalm 9:9). Israel appreciates the need for justice in this world.


According to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.” Justice is not just a principle, it is a precondition to restoring shalom, “for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established.” (Ta’anit 4:2) There is a great deal of commentary on the repetition of the word tzedek (justice) in our opening verses. Some say this verse is a wake up call and ever-present reminder.

By demanding justice two times, the Torah prevents us from ignoring our moral obligations. The repetition of the word “justice” underscores its urgency.

And yet, great medieval biblical commentators like Bachya ben Asher and Rashi were concerned that in our active pursuit of justice, our selective demands for it could result in its denial. We do not possess a homogenous attitude to how we advance the cause of justice and if we are not careful we might trample this sacred value causing injustice.

Perhaps the comma that separates the words “Justice” and “justice” indicates something else. God is a God of “Justice”, but divine “Justice” with a capital “J” is impossible to duplicate. Although these words correspond, their values are clearly not identical in nature. The comma serves as a punctuation mark that separates two standards: divine justice and human justice. In Bamidbar Rabbah (5:13) we read “R. Aha said in the name of R. Simeon b. Levi: Moses said: ‘Lo, the Attribute of Justice lies on evenly balanced scales; Thou sayest, “I will smite them with pestilence,” but I say, “pardon, I pray Thee'” (Num. 14, 19). He, Moses said further: ‘The matter is evenly balanced; we will see, who will prevail, Thou, O Lord or I.’ R. Berekya said: God said to him: ‘By your life, you have nullified My will and yours prevails.'”

So what should we make of the “victor’s justice,” when some war criminals escape justice altogether by virtue of an amnesty or statute of limitations?

Even belated acts of justice can become a parody of it.

The writer Leon Wieseltier suggests that justice is also “joyless because it is preceded by injustice. Justice comes always with a shadow.”

Justice can never be fully realized in the shadow of the Holocaust.

As Primo Levi writes “I know of no human act that can erase a crime.”

This is why in our devotion to justice we can never be at peace in repairing what was once broken.

Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol of Congregation Kol Am prepared this week’s Torah Portion.