“Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 17:20). Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. These were the words of Moshe to the Israelites in this week’s parsha, commanding them to appoint judges and law-enforcement officers to every city in the Land of Israel.
The medieval commentator Rashi in Sifrei Devarim, noted more specifically upon this verse that the Israelites were commanded, “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the L-rd thy G-d giveth thee. And that the appointment of honest judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel in life and to settle them in security in their land.” Rashi’s comments reflect an ethical obligation of our people. His commentary and the biblical text both reflect an understanding rooted in our tradition of our ethical obligation to pursue justice. The meaning of these words has imprinted upon our people a Jewish consciousness of the holy pursuit of justice.
At its roots, justice is a holy pursuit of our people. The Hebrew root of the word “justice,” tzedek, is the same as that of the word tzadik, a holy person. Arbitrating justice is a major theme of our people, extending from the biblical period and developing throughout the great debates of the Talmudic era, and it continues to this very day.
This obligation is not merely recounted in our reading from today, the roots of words, in our commentaries, or in the Talmud. The pursuit of justice finds its way into our liturgical practices, not only—appropriately so—upon our upcoming High Holiday liturgy but also in our daily practice. Lawrence Hoffman writes in his piece My People’s Prayer Book that the Amidah is numbered sequentially in 18 step-by-step benedictions until one reaches redemption. The restoration of just judges is the tenth benediction, and it follows the ingathering of exiles to the Land of Israel.
However, arbitrating justice would be an incomplete vision if it were merely pontificated by our rabbis and theorized in faith. In actual practice, these texts and traditions serve as the bedrock for a number of Jewish-based organizations of today. For example, in the United States, the Tzedek Social Justice Fellowship was established in partnership with the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Fund. Their partnership draws from the spiritual legacy of this week’s parsha, and they offer advocacy work on behalf of marginalized communities across the United States. Other small Jewish-oriented non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups have traditionally offered similar work where needed. The same foundation that generously funded the Tzedek Social Fellowship has also funded Keshet, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Southern Jewish Resource for Gender and Sexual Diversity, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. In particular, the Southern Poverty Law Center, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, has taken civil rights cases to court and has helped to push legislation against discrimination, violence, anti-Semitism, and racism on behalf of marginalized communities.
In the wake of Charlottesville only a few years ago, these organizations have teamed up in an effort to combat the rise of anti-Semitism being felt nationwide. Recall how we, as a Jewish community, reacted. We fought back on behalf of justice. With the guidance and tutelage of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, we made the law work for us and filed lawsuit after lawsuit, not against organizations but against individuals responsible for empowering and supporting the “Unite the Right” rally. We used our own form of intimidation by instituting legal proceedings against bigots. The endless array of charges leveled against these bigots was diverse, ranging from unpaid parking tickets and taxes to domestic terrorism.
The call for justice rings from generation to generation. May we never surrender to injustice, inequity, or failure. May the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” continue to be a guiding force for our people. May we see the day soon when justice reigns on earth, when the messianic vision of tomorrow will be fulfilled.
Kein yehi ratzon