Parshat Devarim, Deutoronomy 1:1-3:22
The book of Deuteronomy opens by reminding us of the important role that judges play. And now, all eyes are on Washington, D.C., as a new Supreme Court justice will be appointed, someone who will potentially decide the law of the land for decades to come. The Torah establishes criteria for choosing judges — people who are wise and understanding, individuals whose attributes are known to the community (Deuteronomy 1:13). In Exodus 18:21, Jethro reminded Moses that judges must be truthful and impervious to bribery. The book of II Chronicles (19:7, 9) records that Yehoshofat appointed judges who were in awe of God, who did not show favoritism, and who judged with faithfulness and with their whole hearts. Every one of these qualities is vital for our new appointee.
The administration of justice is a fundamental aspect of a functioning society. The Talmud suggests that, “A judge should always think of himself as though he had a sword hanging over his head, and hell gaping below him” (BT Sanhedrin 7a).
Being part of a community requires sacrifice on the part of the individual. Each of us gives up a little bit of our own autonomy to support the greater good. People who lack confidence that their community operates on standards of justice and fairness become unwilling to sacrifice as the price of citizenship. Corruption in government is one of the first signs of a failing state. There must be an unshakeable belief that the law will be enforced in a just and equitable manner.
“You must have judges and law enforcement everywhere that you dwell … and they must judge the people according to mishpat tzedek — the standard of righteousness, by a just law.” Deuteronomy continues a few chapters later with the admonition not to judge unfairly and to be completely impartial, and concludes with the ringing cry, “Justice, justice shall you pursue — tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Deuteronomy 16:18- 20). Why is the word tzedek — justice — repeated? Some suggest justice in the means, justice in the ends.
Or, it could refer to the fundamental importance of freedom and justice for all. The one mitzvah repeated more than any other in the Torah is the mandate for one law for the native and the stranger. Thirty-six times the Torah demands that equal justice for every member of society is non-negotiable. There can be no discrimination in how the law is applied. Every single person is formed in the image of God. Perhaps the word justice is repeated to emphasize its importance? Perhaps it is simply to encourage us to know that it is possible and a worthy goal?
Judaism is founded and sustained on a passion for justice. In the book of Genesis, chapter 12, God reaches out to appoint Avram, calling on him to be a blessing in the world. Six chapters later, Avram demonstrates how to be a blessing, crying out to God, “Shall not the judge of all the world deal justly?” Because of our history, we as Jews are especially sensitive to what it means to be the outsider, and the vital call to be the voice of the disenfranchised. Shimon Peres famously suggested that the greatest gift of the Jewish people to the world was “dissatisfaction.” Our tradition demands that we recognize injustice, that we name it and that we work to bring about solutions when we become aware of injustice.
The prophet Micah asks, “What is it that God desires from us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). To do justice is God’s very first requirement. “Every judge who judges truthfully even for a single hour,” the Talmud tells us, “is credited as though he had become a partner with God in the creation of the world” (BT Shabbat 10a). We pray, in the words of the prophet Amos, that “Justice roll on like an ever flowing river, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). JN
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix.