Parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
H ow do we respond to inequity? While the government, courts, business and religious institutions all play a role in maintaining a semblance of a normative social order, there is also a role for every individual to sacrifice some privilege for the dignity of the other. We know from basic psychology that we project our experiences from the earthly world into the heavenly world: If we experience the world as having a foundation of justice, we may be more likely to believe in a just, compassionate God. If we are surrounded by pain, suffering, a land without a justice, our only interpretation of the world is that it is fundamentally unjust; it may be more difficult to embrace an Omnipotent Being in this world … or the next.
So how do we keep ourselves humble and oriented toward justice? In David Brooks’ 2016 book, “The Road to Character,” the New York Times columnist distinguishes between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” He points out that contemporary society emphasizes external achievement, success and status, bullet points on a page that don’t reflect the essence of a person’s inner being. “Eulogy virtues” emphasize virtues such as humility, character, learning and inner work. Both sets of virtues are important for ish-tzedek (a person who performs acts of righteousness). But one must also become a tzadkan (a person who is characteristically righteous) by taking up less space to create more for others, by giving credit to others, by enacting justice in the private sphere; it becomes a part of one’s being.
Indeed, this philosophical tension is ancient.
Parshat Shoftim opens with the commandment for the Israelites to establish courts and select officials in cities under their domain. Ibn Ezra explains that this notion precedes the previous parsha, which ended with the commandment to come to Jerusalem three times a year to teach that it is not enough to have a significant place that people occasionally visit. Rather, justice is designed to be pervasive and embedded throughout every society that has the foresight to ground themselves in fairness and political equanimity (Deuteronomy 16:18).
As it is, the rabbis taught that Israel was given three crowns: the crown of priesthood, the crown of kingship and the crown of Torah (Mechilta d’Rashbi 19:6). In society, there is to be a separation of powers between religious, governing and judicial bodies, with different experts varying their roles to complement one another and, sometimes, to act as checks on each other. The Sefer haChinuch teaches that each of the seven laws of Noah may contain many sub-divisions of laws as well (mitzvah 416). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also argued that gentiles have a religious obligation to pray in times of distress (Iggrot Moshe, OC 2:25). Further, Ramban taught that the seventh law — the one that establishes courts — actually branches into hundreds of laws to ensure justice in society.
The most famous phrase in the parsha states: tzedek tzedek tirdof — Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue — an axiom that has been a clarion call for people throughout time. This is the reason why, when we enact justice by visibly demonstrating that no individual should be left behind, we are not merely helping that individual in need. We not only fulfill the Torah mandate to enact justice, but we also build confidence in a Divinely-ordered world. It is a mitzvah for the inter-personal realm for each of us to not follow laws and merely obey the courts, but also to pursue justice in our lives. Through the process of emulating Divine compassion, we seal it to its proper order. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.