If you are a Jewish kid who graduated law school – and got a job – chances are that your proud parents gave you a picture to hang on the wall of your office (or cubicle) with the famous quote, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue”, which comes right at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, “Shoftim,” which means, “Judges.”
As I am writing this article, programmed to assume that I have made a typo by repeating the same word, Microsoft Word highlights the second “justice” in red for me – alerting me to my “mistake.” If only Moses had a laptop with spell check and typo correction, he could have fixed a lot of mistakes, because there are other such “typos,” such as when God calls out Abraham-Abraham, or Jacob-Jacob, or Moses-Moses. Is it bad editing – or is it transformational? And is there a connection between justice-justice and the duplicative names?
When God says, “Abraham-Abraham” or “Moses-Moses,” etc., it is endearing, tender and intimate. Think of cuddling a baby or speaking the name of your beloved – we often say their names twice, because, well, once is just not enough to convey the depth of the emotions we can feel. Repeating a name like that is a verbal caress.
In the Torah, this double name-calling has another and deeper implication, which draws on the idea of “as above, so is below.” There is a heavenly version of ourselves and there is an earthly version of ourselves. The heavenly version represents our potential, the person we could be. The earthly version, on the other hand, is who we are and how we are showing up in the world as the sum of our choices. Think of two portraits: one is hanging on heaven’s walls and the other one is you, walking around.
When God calls out Abraham-Abraham, etc., we are to understand that in the case of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, these two versions are aligned. There is not a “heavenly Abraham” in contrast to an “earthly Abraham.” The Abraham above was the same as below – congruent, unified, and potential in action.
That’s just not true for most of us, however. But that’s the growth process. One could even understand our purpose on earth as trying to come as close to that heavenly portrait as possible. Living up to our potential, being congruent and authentic, behaving externally in a way that mirrors our highest internal values is admittedly a challenge. As a rabbi was fond of saying to me, “we are all works in progress.” Hopefully, however, that gap is not too wide and we are at least recognizable as the same person.
But that idea doesn’t work well with ideals. A society where earthly justice is really out of sync with heavenly justice is not a “society in progress”; rather, it is an unjust society. What we can tolerate in ourselves and on an individual level is intolerable when perpetrated on a grand societal scale. For justice to be “just,” it has to be authentic, congruent and actualized. Like the proverbial pregnant woman, you can’t have just a little bit of it.
But who must act justly? We must act justly. And who enacts justice? We must enact it. It’s in our individual hands. So can imperfect beings ever create an earthly justice that aligns with heaven? We imagine heavenly justice as strict and severe and we tremble at the idea of facing the Heavenly Court, because that is one tough bench to get over.
Maybe there is another alignment going on. In Hebrew, the word, “Tzedek”, which means “justice,” also means “righteousness.” Perhaps the double use of the word “justice” means that we cannot pursue “justice” without also being “righteous.” That would be perverted justice. Think of the Nuremberg Laws that legitimized the Nazi regime. They were “codes of law,” utterly lacking righteousness, and in no way aligned with heaven. And we cannot think we are “righteous” unless we are also “just.” Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, wrote:
These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy… walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.
This is perverted righteousness. The fact that the Hebrew word “Tzedaka,” which means “charity,” comes from the same word, Tzedek,” which means “justice” and “righteousness” teaches us that unless righteousness is rooted in kindness, in compassion, and in being a giver and caring for the poor and needy, etc., it is not “just.” Being “right with God” but not with your fellow man is not aligned with heaven.
In this week’s Torah portion, “justice” is not a single word, because it is not a single concept. The double word is its own congruency. That’s the alignment to strive for – justice that is righteous and righteousness that is just – rooted in kindness, caring, and giving.
And when we pursue that kind of justice here on earth, we are not only closing the gap between our earthly and heavenly selves, but maybe we are, in fact, mirroring the Heavenly Court, because if only we could create such a society and live in such a world, truly, wouldn’t it be like heaven on earth? Now how transformational is that!