Parashat Shoftim 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Shoftim
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

“Return to Me”. As I was folding my food-delivery bag I saw those printed words on the bottom. The actual words were “Return Me” (a message for the sake of sustainability) but that’s not what I saw; the mind is a funny thing sometimes. We are in the month of Elul, countdown to the High Holidays. Return to Me! Return to the One in Whose Guidance we trust; return to me, my most sacred authentic self. There are many ways to approach this period of preparation and personal reflection prior to the Days of Awe; a theme from Parashat Shoftim suggests one framework: that theme is justice.

This week’s Torah reading begins with God’s establishment of a legal structure, for the time when the Israelites will dwell in their new home across the Jordan. Judges and law enforcement officials are to be established in all the tribes, and these officials shall judge the people righteously (“v’shaftu et ha’am mishpat tzedek”)(Deuteronomy 16:18). In the following chapter we read that if a dispute cannot be resolved the kohanim, the priests, are to be consulted and their judge shall have final say. Once a king has been selected, that king too must abide by the same laws, as he is instructed in Deut. 17:18-19:

“And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll…. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life… to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them”. A rule of law has been established and no one is exempt, not even the king.

This judicial structure also holds every individual responsible for acting justly. Immediately following the verse that establishes judges and law officers we read, “You shall not pervert judgement (lo tateh mishpat)”… and the famous phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:19-20). Here the text is speaking directly in the second person, to us.

This then, is our suggested guidepost from Shoftim whereby we may examine our lives and our deeds. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. The word tzedek is repeated, and that emphasis is further strengthened by the use of the verb tirdof – pursue. With its emphatic repetition and the accompanying verb, this commandment suggests that this is not a passive or occasional endeavor, we must engage the pursuit of justice actively and consciously.

Should we require further motivation regarding the active pursuit of justice, we may find it in Proverbs 13:21 where the verb of pursuit shows up again, with the phrase “hata’im t’radef ra’ah (Evil pursues sinners)”.* Just imagine evil personified, chasing after those who are ethically weak and therefore vulnerable, and luring them to perform further sinful acts. Rather than allow evil to pursue us when we are feeling weak and vulnerable – and for many of us in these times, exhausted – we are commanded in Shoftim to turn around and become the pursuers, pursuers of justice, not evil.

When we see that acts of hatred, racism and violence are on the rise, Parashat Shoftim offers us a banner with the words Tzedek tzedek tirdof, beneath which we, the people, are called to respond. Some of us might respond by means of social activism; equally urgently, we can each seek ways to become more righteous and justice-loving in our everyday actions and interactions with those whom we encounter.

May we be inspired by one other citation of “tzedek” from Psalm 97, which we will hear on the evening of Yom Kippur:

Or zarua latzadik, ul’yishrei lev simha.

“Light is sown for the righteous, and for those with an upright heart, gladness”.


*the complete text of Proverbs 13:21 is “hata’im t’radef ra’ah v’et tzadikim y’shalem tov”, Evil pursues sinners and the righteous are filled with good (reward)”. Whether, or how, the righteous are in fact rewarded is a separate question; tzedek tzedek tirdof commands us to pursue justice without consideration of its potential benefit to ourselves.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor.