Parashat Shoftim

By Simon Rosenbach

If you are of a certain age, you remember Superman, the television show with George Reeves, Noel Neill, Jack Larson, and, among others, Phillips Tead as the delightful Professor Pepperwinkle . . . but I digress. Of course you remember the end of the introduction: “fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Well, if you are of a certain age, you had fun with that ending. It became, “fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and something completely different, the American way.” After all, if truth and justice are not the American way, then what is?

This week’s parashah poses a similar puzzle. Moses directs the people to appoint judges who will judge impartially, who will not accept bribes that blind their eyes. Then, as though he were mentioning something completely different, Moses utters those famous words, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” If impartial judges are not the essence of justice, then what is?

I have been a prosecutor for 33 years, and prosecutors are required to live by this maxim. Reviewing courts are constantly telling us that our job is not to procure a conviction; our job is to do justice, and this parashah is accordingly especially meaningful to me. But Moses was not a prosecutor, and he was not addressing a convention of prosecutors. He was addressing ordinary people, and so we need to ask why, after he insisted that judges be impartial and incorruptible, he told the entire assembly that it was required to pursue justice. What could the entire assembly do about the administration of justice that judges could not?

We need to remember that although Moses spoke to the Children of Israel, his words speak to all of us, so that the injunction to chase justice is applicable to all of us. Thus, we need to ask not what the people could do to insure justice that their judges could not do. We need to ask what we can do to insure justice that judges can not do.

Two weeks ago, in Parashat Ekev we learned that a consequence of immorality and corruption might be loss of the Land. Last week in Parashat Re’eh we learned that we can choose blessings or curses, but that we need to see our choices. And this week, we learn how to implement these and all other lessons: we must pursue justice.

Justice is so important that we can not passively let it come to us. Justice is so important that while we can seek peace, we must pursue justice. But why did Moses repeat the word justice?

You may remember from your Sunday school stories that Moses was “slow of speech.” He stuttered, we were taught. But in this case, he did not stutter. Rather, he repeated the word justice deliberately.

He repeated it because, in connection with the verb “pursue,” he wanted us to understand that nothing was more important than justice. He repeated it because he wanted us to understand that justice for others must be accompanied by justice for ourselves. He repeated it because he wanted us to understand that justice sometimes is absolute, but justice sometimes requires compromise. Mostly, however, he repeated it because he wanted us to understand that justice must be accomplished justly.

In modern terms, Moses is telling us that when we structure a society, universal education and universal health care don’t matter if the justice system is corrupt. Moses is telling us that how we treat others will dictate, in the end, how we treat ourselves, and that if we mistreat others we will mistreat ourselves. Moses is telling us that sometimes justice must be unyielding, but sometimes we must
decline to apply the law. Moses is telling us that the end does not justify the means. Finally, Moses is telling us that judges have no monopoly on the administration of justice. Each of us must do our part to unearth injustice, to decry injustice, to expose injustice, and to demand justice from the people who administer justice.

The random application of justice breeds contempt and distrust. If the end justifies the means, then society is at the mercy of the basest governor. If there is no mercy at all, then deserving people will be punished unjustly. We are a Holy People, we are reminded constantly, and all of a Holy People, not merely its functionaries and elected and appointed representatives, must do justice.

Simon Rosenbach is a rabbinic student at AJR.