Right from the outset, this parshah tells us that we have a responsibility when it comes to justice in our communities: You shall appoint judges and magistrates for yourself. (Deut. 16:18)
We learn from the ancients that it is to our benefit to live in an ordered society, ruled by laws and guided by the concept of righteousness. This week’s parshah shows several examples. For instance, in capital cases we require two witnesses to assure that the matter really happened as presented.
We also read about the creation of Cities of Refuge to protect society from the perils of “an eye for an eye” retaliation, which could only yield a totally blind community. And we note that even deforestation is prohibited, so that even in wartime, the planet is not totally decimated. Righteousness prevails.
In our contemporary society, a world where theories of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies change as easily as the TV channel or Twitter feed, how are we to even recognize what an ordered society should look like?
One might correctly question whether anything we see, read or hear has true value or must be constantly investigated. Today’s crazy world is no longer just a follow-the-rules setting, like last generation’s “Father Knows Best.”
Whose rules? Who establishes them? What is the consequence of failing to follow along? And who will be the arbiter of justice?
As with these questions, the responses also emanate from the parshah. We read “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” Sometimes this is translated as “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.” Sometimes this is interpreted as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Sometimes we will combine both explanations and come to the conclusion that we are responsible for living a life that is righteous and just.
Tzedek is related to the word tzadik, a righteous person of impeccable background. So to say we must follow the right path -- especially if the Torah is seen as our pathway, a guidebook -- is to imply we need to do the right thing, at the right time, under the right circumstances.
Tzedek is also a cognate of tzedakah, the overly mistranslated word whose definition is not charity, but righteousness. Assist others then, is a duty of doing tzedakah, of being righteous, and a privilege of pursuing the right path.
We have set before us judges and magistrates, and we look to them to be righteous, but only if those in authority are themselves of impeccable character. We can’t accept judges who slant the truth; magistrates who favor one group over the needs of another; officials who are ruled by the wealthy. Nor can an orderly society function with individuals granted power who place barriers before the indigent or who re-image Torah to their personal benefit.
When the highest courts of this land are stacked with individuals of academic stature who lack the moral concept of tzedek, we may sadly find ourselves on the receiving end of decisions that fail to recognize the value of coupling legal judgments with righteousness and justice.
Impartiality is required of judges and magistrates. Honesty and integrity need to be the hallmarks of those who are placed in positions of authority. Our shoftim and shotrim accepted their high offices by swearing on a Bible to do what is proper and right. Let’s pray that their decisions also recognize the inherent significance of doing that job with righteousness. JN
Rabbi Robert L. Kravitz, D.D. serves as the coordinator of hospital chaplaincy for Jewish Family & Children’s’ Service, and volunteers with the Scottsdale Police Department as their senior chaplain. He is a past-president of Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.