By Rabbi Alanna Sklover
This week, one of the most well-known verses in the Torah arises to challenge us once again. The words of Parshat Shoftim, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” leap out from their comfortable position on a parchment scroll to take up a new home on our protest signs.
The words are a call to action and to vigilance that echoes through thousands of years of Jewish history. They are a warning against complacency — which pierce through the tumultuous politics — and the egregious incitement, hatred and bigotry that define our current times.
Contained within just three words is the legacy of our people and the greatest moments in our history, as we sought and enacted justice as individuals and as a community. We hear this verse as aspirational: Tirdof, “you shall pursue,” indicates an ongoing movement toward justice. We hear this verse as an imperative: The word tzedek, “justice,” is repeated twice.
The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra explains, “Scripture addresses the litigants. The word appears twice because one must pursue justice, whether it be to one’s gain, or to one’s loss.” Our Philadelphia colleague, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, explains, “[Twice] to teach us: Pursue the goal of justice through means that are just. And to teach us: Justice for our selves. And justice for the other.”
In popular iconography, Justice is personified as a woman blindfolded, holding scales and a sword. Let us take a moment to unpack this image. Firstly, who is the woman? The woman we know as Lady Justice is actually the Roman goddess Justitia (Iustitia).
Behind her blindfold, uninfluenced by passion or bribe, she is able to judge objectively, based on logic and fact. Parshat Shoftim echoes this notion, “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”
In one hand, Lady Justice holds scales. Why scales? When we seek justice for harm caused to us and our loved ones — whether in a court of law, or as we march in protest in the streets — what we truly seek is a restoration of balance.
Later in the parshah, we read, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Though the rabbis of the Talmud later extrapolate from this verse a system of monetary reparations for harm and damage, the effect is the same. Seeking justice is about restoration, compensation and reparation.
In her other hand, Lady Justice holds a sword. Why a sword? The pursuit of justice is not a passive one; sometimes, as our image reminds us, we must be prepared to fight for justice. We cannot wait for justice to “flow like a mighty river” (Amos 5:24); we must turn the tide ourselves.
Now that we have parsed our image of justice personified, we revisit our verse.
After “justice, justice you shall pursue,” our verse continues, “that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” The pursuit of justice is not a lofty goal to which we can ascribe; rather it is a basic requirement for living Jewishly in the world. In order to occupy the places in which we live, and thrive as a society, it must be a just one.
As we bear witness to one of the darkest moments in American history, our tradition implores us not to be bystanders, but to actively pursue justice — no matter the starting point, no matter how daunting the journey seems.
Equipped with our scales, our sword and our blindfold — as well as our Facebook accounts, our protest signs and our wallets — each one of us must challenge inequity, dismantle oppression and stand up for the rights and the lives of communities most under attack.
May we each find the strength in ourselves and in each other to answer an ancient call to action.
Rabbi Alanna Sklover is the director of lifelong learning at Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.