David Walk

Chasing Righteousness Righteously

Chasing Righteousness during all those months of demonstrations for or against judicial reforms, we didn’t hear the word TZEDEK or righteousness very much. Sadly, there is more political jockeying than demanding that judges behave as our Torah reading demands. So, this week let’s analyze the Torah requirements for righteous justice, which is a major component of this week’s parsha.

The central and most famous verse in the Torah’s presentation of how to develop a Jewish legal system is: Pursue justice (TZEDEK, perhaps righteousness) and justice (TZEDEK) alone, so that you will live and possess the land the Eternal your God is giving you (Devafrim 16:20). A careful reading of this verse makes it clear that our possession of Eretz Yisrael is conditioned on an ethical and moral judiciary. What are the components of such a system and how do we secure them?

Without getting overly analytical or philosophic, most commentaries agree that there are certain basic ideals when seeking justice. Rashi, to a certain extent puts the onus on the litigants, he says: Search after honest courts and judges. This works in civil cases when often there are options on where to bring the case. There are other authorities who agree that the primary responsibility is on those seeking justice. The Ibn Ezra states: Moses speaks to the disputants. Moses repeats the word justice to indicate that one should pursue justice whether one gains or loses. 

But Rashi adds: The appointment of honest judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel in life and to settle them in security in their land. There is a spiritual and historic aspect to this requirement. Many Prophets decried the lack of justice in the Land. It’s clear in the texts (if not in the Knesset) that our continued presence in Eretz Yisrael is dependent upon the availability of righteous justice in the Land. Zecharia states: Thus said GOD of Hosts: Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another (7:9-10).

Sadly, the leadership didn’t heed, and the prophet continues by informing us of the disastrous results: But they refused to pay heed. They presented a balky back and turned a deaf ear. They hardened their hearts like flint against heeding the instruction and admonition that GOD of Hosts sent to them by divine spirit through the earlier prophets; and a terrible wrath issued from GOD of Hosts…I dispersed them among all those nations that they had not known, and the land was left behind them desolate, without any who came and went. They caused a delightful land to be turned into a desolation. (11-12, 14).

Justice in a just society is who we are supposed to be. Rav Soloveitchik explained:

If I would be asked to explain my view as to Judaism’s unique contribution to the world, I would reply as follows: It is well known that Judaism has contributed to the world the belief in the one supreme God: monotheism…Judaism can also pride itself on an additional great contribution to mankind and that is the connection between religious experience and ethical action. Judaism was the first religion to place the service of God at the center of its concern where service to God included social ethics.

Clearly, one can’t be a religious Jew and be unethical towards other humans. That prison in Otisville, NY (often called the Otisville Kollel) which has glatt kosher food and minyanim doesn’t have any religious Jews, unless they were unjustly sentenced (unlikely) or they’ve done TESHUVA (possible and let’s hope). Stealing and cheating are antithetical to the demands of Halacha, even if the proceeds of the sin go to worthy causes.

Rav Sacks commented on the speech of Portia in Shakespeare’s antisemitic play The Merchant of Venice. She states: That, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; In other words, justice isn’t enough to Christians. There must be mercy. They, including Shakespeare, don’t understand our concept of TZEDEK. Rav Sacks explains:

It is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts. Justice plus compassion equals tzedek, the first precondition of a decent society.

The Jewish concept of TZEDEK includes justice, compassion, empathy, and, yes, love. As I stated above (Ibn Ezra and others)), one of the requisites for seeking TZEDEK is more concern for truth and justice than for winning and gaining. 

I have a very bad feeling that most of our politicians claiming to desire the best judicial system for our beloved Medina really want to win and increase their power more than desiring truth, justice and the Torah way. We have to demand a just society, and that begins by each of us living lives of morality, ethics and V’AHAVTA L’REI’ACHA KAMOCHA (loving the other as much as myself).

The Sfat Emet commented on this issue, and stated:

There is no limit to ZEDEK, for God is EMET and ZEDEK. Therefore, one must continually search and add to ZEDEK so that we can establish EMET L’AMITO (complete truth). There is no EMET until each individual becomes dedicated to Divine service, and EMET is from the beginning to the end (ALEPH until TAF).

Yes, let’s get the best judicial system we possibly can for Medinat Yisrael, but let’s begin by living lives of strict morality, ethics and love.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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