‘Justice, justice thou shall pursue’



Near the beginning of next week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Hebrew for Judges, Deut. 16:17-21:9), we find a verse that begins: “Justice, justice (Tzedek, tzedek) thou shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20).  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) describes this commandment as “our highest unique purpose as a people, to be striven for purely for itself, to which all other considerations have to be subordinate …. To pursue justice unceasingly with all devotion is Israel’s one task.” And Rabbi Bakhya ben Asher (Spain, 1255-1340) taught that the repetition of the word tzedek means justice under any circumstance, whether for profit or loss, whether in word or action, whether for Jew or non-Jew.

Pursuing justice is not a recommendation or suggestion; it is a commandment, a mitzvah.  We are not to stroll after justice, or walk casually in pursuit of it, but to pursue justice passionately, consistently and deliberately.

The Hebrew verb tirdof, “pursue,” conveys intensity, intentionality and commitment.  Alongside tzedek, “justice,” the only other thing we are commanded to pursue in this way is Shalom.  As Martin Luther King Jr. taught, there can be no peace if there is no justice.

At this time of the year in our Torah reading cycle, Moses is preparing to die and is making great efforts to prepare the Israelites not only to enter and settle the land, but to learn to build the just and compassionate society God commands them to establish.

Moses reminds them that for this to happen, they must pursue justice both individually and collectively with all their minds, hearts and souls, and they are to use all their material, financial and physical resources to do so.

Our Torah teaches us this eternal truth: We cannot have a society that is pleasing to God that is unjust, and that justice is expensive – but not anywhere nearly as costly as life in a society deficient in or devoid of justice, as we Jews certainly know.

If we are to truly understand the mitzvah of tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“justice, justice thou shall pursue”), we need to distinguish between what may be legal and what is just.  At times these are the same, but often they are extremely, painfully and tragically different (subscribe to the Equal Justice Initiative’s free, daily “History of Racial Injustice” to learn literally, sadly and graphically the difference).

It was legal for the U.S. government to turn away the ship St. Louis, filled with over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but was it just?

It was legal for our government to imprison Japanese-Americans in detention camps during World War II, but was it just?

It was legal for our government to massacre the indigenous peoples of this land, confiscate their (sacred) lands and, even today, continue to violate many of the treaties we made with them, but was it, is it, just?

And, of course, slavery was absolutely legal in the United States for 250 years, as was the “right” of slaveholders to do whatever they wished to those enslaved by them … but was it just?

Segregation was legal until the mid-1960s; not allowing interracial marriages was legal until 1967; Jim Crow laws were legal and enforced until 1965. But were these, and so many similar laws, just?

Imprisoning juveniles in adult prisons for life without parole is legal; putting inmates into solitary confinement for weeks, months and even years is legal; executing human beings even while knowing that many innocent people are in prison, including some on death row, is legal; keeping people locked up because they cannot afford bail is legal; long sentences imprisoning people for non-violent and minor crimes is legal. But are these just?

Our rabbis understood that the repetition of the word tzedek is to teach us that we need to pursue justice for the innocent, but also for the guilty. Thinking about all those who are innocent but are languishing in prison, can any of us imagine what it is like being imprisoned when innocent, being locked up in a cell for years and years?

Treating immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers (including teenagers, children and infants) the way we do is legal, but is it just?  How can we Jews forget the 36 times in our Torah that we are commanded to take care of strangers, the disenfranchised and vulnerable just as we take care of our own?

Gerrymandering and limiting voting rights and opportunities may be legal, but are these just?  Prohibiting women from voting was legal until 1920, but was that just?  Limiting, if not eliminating, women’s reproductive rights is legal today, but is this just?

Prohibiting teaching uncomfortable truths about our nation’s genesis and history is becoming legal in some states, as was, not very long ago, the prohibition against teaching evolution in our schools. Is this just?

For a people who are commanded to devote ourselves to the truth – even one of our names for God, Emet, means truth – is this not a most urgent and serious issue?

Remember, too, that everything that Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany before and during the Holocaust was 100% legal.

As Jews, we must not simply be concerned with what might be legal; we must be absolutely concerned with what is just. We are commanded to pursue justice in all places and at all times, whether or not it is popular, convenient or aligned with our political preferences and personal biases.

Pursuing justice is to unite all of us as Jews, and as Jews we are not to stroll or walk casually after it.  For over 3,000 years, we have been commanded to pursue justice intensely, uncompromisingly, consistently and passionately: “Justice, justice thou shall pursue!”

Let us fulfill this mitzvah as individuals, as Jewish communities and as Americans, and let us teach our children to devote their lives to pursuing justice. Another interpretation of why the word “justice” (tzedek) is repeated is to remind us that to pursue justice is hard, at times seemingly impossible, but we should never become discouraged and should continue pursuing it every day.

RABBI IRVIN WISE, of Barrington, is Rabbi Emeritus of Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served for 27 years as Senior Rabbi. He retired in 2019 after more than 40 years in the rabbinate.