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The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
October 2005

Justice, Pursue Justice

Shoftim 5765 - Thursday, September 8, 2005

Like so much of Devarim (Deuteronomy), parashat Shoftim is wide-ranging in scope, including, among other things, instructions to: appoint judges, execute idolaters, seek elucidation (or conflict resolution), avoid sorcery, establish cities of refuge, take responsibility for the unclaimed corpse…in short, as the last words of the parshah read, "do what is right in God’s eyes." The opening words of this parashah are shoftim v’shotrim titten lecha, appoint for yourselves judges and officers. Then follows a discussion of justice, tzedek

There are so many possibilities in this parashah for learning, but given recent events, it is hard to avoid the oft-visited theme of tzedek, justice, in its most famous iteration: tzedek tzedek tirdof l’maan tichyeh— justice, pursue justice, that you may live (Deut. 16:20). What is it to pursue justice, and why is the word tzedek repeated? Medieval commentators offered some ideas:

  • Saadyah Gaon — pursue absolute justice.  
  • Rashi and others — your courts should be exemplary.  
  • Ramban — the word tzedek is repeated to teach that justice is paramount, whether the judgment is in your favor or not. 
  • The Etz Hayyim bible commentary quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, "You must actively pursue justice" and 
  • Simcha Bunem, "The means you use to pursue justice must also be just." 

Perhaps, like the two ways we often view situations ("…on the other hand…"), tzedek is not necessarily clearly defined; just as the traditional scales of justice has the two pans, tzedek must be balanced. Why is the verb tirdof used in connection to tzedek? In Tehillim, Psalms 34, we read bakesh shalom v’rodfehu, seek peace and pursue it. Elsewhere, rodef is often used in military or confrontational circumstances. For example, in Shirat Hayyam, the Song at the Sea, the enemy says: erdof, assig — I will pursue and overtake! (Ex. 15:9) With tzedek, why not use a more familiar and gentler verb like tishmor — keep, observe, or tizkor — remember? Or even something like b’derech tzedek telech, walk in the ways of justice? 

What happens when justice is not actively pursued? We lose: people’s lives can be diminished, people can die, and the living can lose faith in the shotrim, the appointed officers. 

It might be tzedek that one of our shotrim, our chief appointed officer, can claim to pursue justice on behalf of one citizen and take extraordinary steps to do so. But when thousands are dead, at death’s door or displaced in what that officer calls "this part of the world." Not "here, in this part of my jurisdiction, in my backyard" but elsewhere, "in this part of the world" — is that tzedek?

It may be tzedek to nominate a shofet, a judge, who is bright, principled, young and healthy. But is it tzedek to those approaching the court that that judge could decide more cases in his first year on the Supreme Court than he has ruled on in all his years on the bench? 

We live daily with inequality, which many equate with injustice. For example, in this township, we are rightfully proud of our public schools. We care, and we can raise enough money through taxation, to ensure that our children are reasonably well-educated. That’s one tzedek — we’re doing justice by our children. But there’s another tzedek, or lack thereof: as proud as we are, perhaps we should be embarrassed that nearby, in some cases just one municipality over, children are barely achieving remedial levels of schooling. Maybe we should be pursuing that tzedek. Please forgive my editorializing, but these words of the Torah and the events of our time cry out for active connection. 

So, why are we told tzedek tzedek tirdof, pursue justice? The 19th-century Hassidic commentator Sefat Emet wrote, "We have to keep pursuing justice, knowing that we have not yet attained it." Perhaps the Torah is proclaiming this difficult truth: you must pursue justice because it is nearly impossible to achieve a truly just society, much as we must pursue shalom — wholeness, peace, likewise a virtually unachievable goal. If we were to merely lishmor, "keep" justice, or "follow" justice or "adhere" to justice, we are destined to fail. 

The active, tenacious pursuit of justice is what will ultimately let us live at peace with ourselves and our neighbors in the land God gave us and wherever we may live.   

Jonathan Kremer is a graphic designer and Hebrew calligrapher ( He prepares a brief dvar Torah for Thursday morning (7:30) minyan at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.