The immeasurable importance of a not-so-simple word

The most important section of the Book of Deuteronomy, and arguably the most relevant section of the Torah as we lead up to the High Holy Days, is the one that many of us have been listening to on Shabbat mornings since the start of August, and that will conclude just more than a week before Rosh Hashanah.

This section, chapters 12 through 26, represents the essence of the law Israel must observe if it is to fulfill its Divine mission. Thus, it also represents the essence of what we must concentrate on as individuals and communally if we truly want to mend our ways for the new year.

When people think of the Torah — in its narrow sense as the “Five Books of Moses,” and its broader sense to include the Oral Law — they think of it as being all about ritual, which, as I often have noted in the past, it is not and never was. We need to understand that as we approach the High Holy Days.

The Torah is about how we treat people, whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever their skin color, regardless of their beliefs (unless those beliefs involve bestiality and human sacrifice). The Torah is about how we treat the environment, including its flora and its fauna, the air we breathe and the water we drink. In other words, the Torah is about our obligations to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world in which we and everyone and everything else lives.

Whatever ritual there is in the Torah is meant to focus us on those obligations. Shabbat is meant to remind us of our responsibilities to God’s creation, and also to foster within us respect and a sense of equality for all life forms, human, animal, and even plant life. Wearing tefillin on our hands is meant to keep us from using our hands to do evil; wearing tefillin on our heads is meant to keep us from planning evil against others. Wearing tzitzit is meant to “recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them,” in the Torah’s own words. The Torah’s rituals are not ends onto themselves. They are what the Torah says they are: signs to point us toward the path God wants us to travel.

The essence of what the Torah expects of us is summed up in this section by the doubling up of one not-so-simple word: tzedek. It is the Torah’s prime directive.

Tzedek is a not-so-simple word because it is not easily defined. It means so many things, including righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, virtue, and piety.

From tzedek comes tzedakah, which does not mean charity and never did. “Charity” is a voluntary gift offered when someone is moved to do so by his or her heart, or good nature, or emotions. Tzedakah is not voluntary; it is an obligation imposed on all of us. Tzedakah means righteousness, purity, equity, and even “to be liberal with,” as in to be liberal with what we give to those in need.

God’s vision was a world built on tzedek in all its multiple meanings. He told us this when He revealed why He chose Abraham to be the founding father of the Israelite nation — so that he would “instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing tzedakah and mishpat [by doing what is right and just]….” (See Genesis 18:19.)

In doubling up his use of tzedek, Moses was making a point: Tzedek must never be defined narrowly. It always must include all of its meanings. When God said He wants a world built on tzedek, Moses was saying, He meant He wants a world built on righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, equity, virtue, and piety.

Creating that world is the Israelite mission. The means to do so is the observance of the Torah’s prime directive, tzedek, and the way to do that is by observing the Torah’s laws — not just its ritual laws, but those laws the ritual laws are meant to underscore.

Tzedek permeates the laws of this section. In criminal cases, for example, it requires the eyewitness testimony of at least two people — and they must be thoroughly (and even harshly) cross-examined by the judges themselves. No confessions are allowed, because those can be forced. No circumstantial evidence is admissible, because things are not always the way they seem.

How many wrongful convictions in the United States have been based on the testimony of a single eyewitness who got it wrong? How many have been based on circumstantial evidence? One recent study showed a false conviction rate in the United States of 4.1 percent in capital cases alone. There were 1,320 defendants executed during the study period; at least 55 of them probably were innocent.

Tzedek is why there must be cities of refuge to which the accidental murderer may flee to find safe haven, why these cities must be equidistant from each other, and why local governments along the route to each city must keep their highways and byways free of hazards and other impediments.

Tzedek plays a role in releasing people from being drafted into a war-bound army. It is the foundation of the boundary markers law, which itself is the foundation for Judaism’s laws against unfair competition. We see tzedek in “the law of the mother bird,” in the lost property law, and in the law of the parapet. We also see it in the inheritance law regarding the first-born of a “hated wife,” and in the law requiring a man to put in writing (a get) his reasons for wanting to divorce his wife (the Torah’s way of trying to prevent a man from divorcing his wife for some frivolous or absurd reason).

Tzedek also plays a role in making a community responsible for the crimes committed within it, which means the community is responsible for the moral character of all who live there (which also means it is responsible for the education of young and old alike, so all know what is expected of them).

Even the environment gets its tzedek, from the law against destroying anything of value to anyone or anything for no good reason, to the law against sowing a field with both “strong” seeds and “weak” ones, so as not to endanger the “weak” plants.

Then there is the King’s Law, which makes the king the ruler of equals who governs only with their consent. The Israelite king is not above the law, and his powers are neither absolute nor unlimited.

The Torah’s laws are all about tzedek — all about righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, virtue, and piety, as this section of Deuteronomy makes clear. Tzedek is why the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, is able to say with pride, “The Torah is the blueprint of a society built on freedom and human dignity.”

This section leads us to the High Holy Days each year. It is the Torah’s way of reminding us that tzedek is what we need to concentrate on as we get ever nearer to Rosh Hashanah. Tzedek, in all its definitions and permutations, is the word we must keep in front of our eyes and in front of our minds; it is the word that must govern all our actions. Not just tzedek. But tzedek tzedek.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at