Rabbi Ari Kahn
A healthy society must have a functioning court system; this, to paraphrase popular wisdom, is what keeps people honest. A holy society, on the other hand, requires something more: A holy society is based upon the active pursuit of justice.
The Torah describes these two spheres with two very enlightening terms: The court system is generally referred to in terms of mishpat, a word that connotes judgment. Society cannot be maintained without judges - and the authority vested in the system of judgment to enforce its decisions. The Torah goes to great lengths to stress that without honest judges and fair laws, brutality and chaos will create an evil society whose continued existence is not justifiable. Yet even when the basic requirements of the legal system are in place, there is no guarantee that justice, in the larger sense, will be served: Law has a very pronounced procedural element, and often adherence to legal procedure produces an unjust result. Legalities have a way of blurring truth, and a ”legal truth” is whatever the law may or may not find to be true, nothing more and nothing less. Upholding the law often causes a contravention of justice – an unfortunate but all-too-familiar scenario, even given the best intentions.
The word for justice is tzedek, and this word is closely related to tzedaka, often translated as “charity,” as well as tzadik (or tzadeket)–- for lack of a better translation, a righteous person. Tzedek is not related to procedure; it concerns itself with results. The “righteous person” who always fails in their attempts to help, may not be all that righteous – they are merely good intentioned.
This week’s Parasha is aptly called Shoftim, judges. Both the word and the general concept are direct derivatives of the word mishpat, as both the word and the concept lie at the core of the justice system. It is here that the Torah commands us to install judges, and a justice system, in our cities:
Appoint judges and officers of the law for your tribes in all your settlements that the Almighty your God is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment (tzedek) for the people. Do not bend justice and do not give special consideration [to anyone]. Do not take bribes, since bribery makes the wise blind and perverts the words of the righteous. Tzedek tzedek tirdof - Pursue perfect tzedek (or, constantly and relentlessly pursue tzedek), so that you will live and occupy the land that the Almighty your God is giving you. (Dvarim 16:18-20)
The language Moshe uses in these verses is complex, nuanced, even slightly opaque, and not simply because he was waxing poetic. The juxtaposition of the roots of mishpat and tzedek conveys a strong message to the careful reader: In and of itself, the creation of a legal system does not guarantee a just outcome. Appointing judges – even honest, upstanding judges – is not enough. We must do more than uphold the law and insure the proper functioning of the legal system: Our society must be one in which the quest for justice is both constant and uncompromising.
Judaism’s quest for justice goes back to its very earliest roots, to our patriarch Avraham. His behavior both in the interpersonal and the religious spheres share the pursuit of tzedek as their guiding principle. Thus, Avraham gets involved in a war between four kings and five opposing kings, and pursues them (the word to describe Avraham’s activity is the same root as the word that appears in our current parashah, tirdof) to a place called Dan (which means judgment). Avraham’s involvement in the geopolitical machinations of the kings had one overarching purpose: the pursuit of tzedek (see Bereishit 14:14).
The pursuit of tzedek is more than just an admirable trait; it is, in fact, the bedrock of the nation that God promised would emerge from Avraham and Sarah. In fact, the pursuit of tzedek is part and parcel of the promise itself:
God said, 'Shall I hide from Avraham what I am going to do? Avraham is about to become a great and mighty nation, and through him, all the nations of the world will be blessed. I know him for he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God's way, doing tzedaka and mishpat. God will then bring about for Avraham everything He promised. (Bereishit 18:19)
Avraham is informed that he and Sarah would have a son; there will be continuity, a nation will emerge that will carry forward into the world the great messages that Avraham and Sarah had worked so hard to spread. These verses offer us a rare glimpse into “God’s thoughts.” He tells us why Avraham was chosen, and, by extension, why Avraham’s descendants are the “Chosen People:” Avraham’s dedication to kindness and acts of charity (hesed and tzedaka) is coupled with a simultaneous dedication to justice (mishpat) - and the combination of these elements is tzedek - justice. God knows that Avraham will instill these values in his descendants.
Incredibly, in the very same verse in which God reveals this decision and its motivation, Avraham displays a stunning example of his commitment to true justice – justice that combines mishpat and tzedek (and, perhaps, his commitment to hesed as well). Avraham hears, directly from God, that Sodom and Amorah will be eradicated because their society has become so corrupt, so wicked, that its continued existence is unjustifiable. We would do well to recall that Sodom was the antithesis of everything Avraham stood for, yet he does something that is almost unthinkable: He challenges God, and accuses Him of injustice! But it is precisely this challenge which illustrates what God already knew, and why Avraham was chosen: Rather than applauding the eradication of an evil society that was the antithesis of his own life’s work, Avraham argues that this form of justice is only partial: Real justice – certainly Divine Justice, should not have “collateral damage.” God must have the capacity, Avraham argued, to mete out tzedek for both the wicked and the righteous.
Sadly, there were not nearly as many righteous people (tzadikim) to be found as Avraham imagined. Apparently, this is another trait of the righteous: They do not think they are special. They believe there are many others like themselves. That is what happens when you judge people favorably. Avraham came to learn what God already knew: Sodom did not have 50 or 45, or 40 or 30 or 20 or even 10 righteous people. Avraham was unique. Had the people of Sodom been told that Avraham and his family were to be killed, we suspect that no protest would have been raised. Business would have carried on as usual. Perhaps they may even have enjoyed a sense of satisfaction upon hearing that Avraham, and all he stood for, would no longer be a nuisance to their way of life.
God Himself attests that Avraham’s uncompromising pursuit of tzedek will be passed on to his descendants, and in Parashat Shoftim we are commanded to bring to fruition this element of our spiritual DNA: We must create a system of courts and judges, but we must go beyond the constraints of legalism. We must nurture and develop our deep desire, our need, for justice. We must pursue justice; we must aspire to the perfect justice that Avraham saw with clarity: Tzedek tzedek tirdof.
For a more in-depth analysis see: