This week's portion sheds light on justice in legal settings and on "doing what is right" in general.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive …” (Deuteronomy 16:20) This is perhaps the most famous verse from the Torah portion Shofetim, and perhaps one of the most famous verses of the whole Torah. It has been cited over and over, in support of many causes, both today and in the past.
In the context of the portion, and in Rashi’s commentary, justice, or tzedek in Hebrew, refers specifically to establishing fair courts. This is one of the crucial marks of a fair and just society, one that we fight to maintain and improve upon in the United States for all people, and to which we feel grateful to have access relative to many places in the world.
However, the definition of justice that is put forth in Shofetim goes beyond the legal system. It encompasses a larger idea of fairness and kindness that is bigger than law. It addresses soldiers before battle, offering that anyone who has not yet harvested their vineyard or married their betrothed should go back and do so before fighting.
Soldiers should leave the fruit trees of captured enemy land untouched because they are food, and it is unjust to take away that which bears food for people.
These two understandings of tzedek — the specific one of pursuing justice through the legal system, and the expansive one of doing what is right have both been reflected in the many divrei Torah I have written for the Exponent in the past five years.
I have written about ways that the text has invited us into a more spiritual way of being in the world, opening up moments for reflection or rest that we might not otherwise take in our busy lives.
This, too, is a certain kind of justice: the justice of Shabbat, or of the sabbatical year that we are about to enter in 5775, which puts forth a vision of a less harried life where everyone is allowed their portion of rest.
In today’s world, some people are denied that rest because of economic circumstances, and some because of the culture of the work worlds that they live in, or because of the pressure of our consumer life styles.
I see all these situations on a continuum of justice. I have also written about more traditional issues of justice, the places where we seek to bring the world into greater balance or equality, which is a more nuanced meaning of the word tzedek. These have been divrei Torah about the rate of incarceration in Pennsylvania, about our responsibility to the environment and about sexual assault on our college campuses.
Every piece I have written, from the ones encouraging moments of reflection to the ones calling for action, have been inspired directly by the words of the Torah in that week’s portion.
It has been an incredible honor to see how justice constantly calls out through these words that we read aloud weekly in our synagogues, reaffirming the call of this Torah portion to pursue justice in order that we may live.
As we move through the month of Elul, a month of pursuing the balance and equality that is inherent in the word tzedek and in our own lives, may we find inspiration in the words of Torah to continue to live a life of justice.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is the director of Jewish Life and associate chaplain at Lehigh University. Email her at: [email protected].