Justice: Making Things Right Before They Go Wrong
by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and take possession of the land that HaShem, your God, gives you.
Contemporary calls for justice, it seems, are primarily reactive. We hear their cry only when there is a tragic abuse of power and someone is wronged. However, convicting someone of a crime doesn’t undo the consequences of the evil action. Pursuing justice, in this week’s Torah portion, is framed in an anticipatory vein that prepares us to be worthy recipients of a Godly society.
A collective is composed of individuals, and so the quest for communal justice can be informed by an internal search for a just self, which then projects outwards. The word “צֶ֥דֶק – tzedek” repeats in acknowledgment of these two interconnected components. This is the procedure that the Talmud1 puts forth for judges. In a phrase the Talmud attributes to Reish Lakish, this double focus of justice — personal and social — should be at the core of judges’ work: “Verify the judgment in your heart, and then implement it.”
Our talk of justice should begin with just us, not the outside world. If we center the initial conversation on the brokenness of the world around us, then we will center our efforts and expectations on making the world more just, while we stay pretty much the same.
The difference between merely asking for something to be different and truly desiring that change, is expressed by King David in the Psalm2 that we begin saying every day of the month of Ellul: “…אַחַ֤ת שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת הֹ’ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ – One thing I request of Hashem, that I shall seek: That I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…”
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as the Malbim,3 explains that simply asking for something isn’t an indicator of the desire of one’s heart, as opposed to what drives a person to find what they are truly searching for. Unusually, King David possessed a unity of his mouth and heart; what he is asking for, is the one thing that he most wants.
Malbim continues his commentary by quoting the prophet Zephaniah who exhorts us to:4 “בַּקְּשׁוּ־צֶ֙דֶק֙ – seek justice.” Malbim understands Zephaniah to mean that a just community is created by people who are engaged in holding themselves to just account and achieving, in the process, collective justice. The opposite is also true; society is destroyed when an individual distorts justice for their own selfish gain.
Bribes, for example, are problematic because they prevent the judge from maintaining a separate sense of self. The Talmud5 understands the word for “bribe – שׁוֹחַד”, to be read “שֶׁהוּא חַד – that [the two involved] are one” and a person struggles to see their own faults. The language that Rava uses to express this concept is: ”וְאֵין אָדָם רוֹאֶה חוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ”, which on a simple level means that a person won’t see themselves as guilty. More precisely, perhaps Rava is offering a fundamental framing that a person who is focused only on the proper outcome is vulnerable to accepting a bribe because “this person doesn’t see the obligation of justice applying to themselves.”
Fighting for justice is best done in just ways, and heartlessness isn’t one of them. King David’s heart-centered, passionate yearning to live with God inspires his commitment to trust the process of doing the right thing.6 With a heart-forward presentation, Ellul – אלול famously alludes to our intimate relationship with God: ”אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י – I am by beloved and my beloved is mine.” King David’s goal of dwelling with God wasn’t his primary aspiration; it was the one and only thing that he wanted.
Living in a just world, like our closeness to the Divine, begins with ourselves – אֲנִ֤י, and then God follows. Restorative justice is a return to living our lives just as God had intended it.
1 Sanhedrin 7b in the manuscript of the Ein Yaakov.
2 Psalm 27:4.
3 March 7, 1809 – September 18, 1879, Eastern Europe.
5 Ketubot 105b.
6 See Psalm 27:3.