This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is about justice and setting up a legal system by which to obtain it. Almost immediately, we read, tzedek tzedek tirdof l’maan tichyeh – justice, justice pursue, that you may live (Deut. 16:20). While there are a lot of individual, specific laws here, the focus is on developing an entire just community, not merely a group of individuals living in proximity. The operative framework of the system involves shoftim v’shotrim, judges (or magistrates) and officers (modern Hebrew: policemen). Difficult cases are bumped up, to a Levite, priest, or the current designated chief judge. Their judgement is final. The reasons to pursue justice are “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” and to “sweep out evil from your midst.” The term “sweep out evil” occurs three times, in the context of worshiping other gods or heavenly bodies (17:7), rejecting the judge’s final decision (17:12), and maliciously giving false testimony (19:19)
The other laws can now be read in the context of that overarching pursuit of a decent and fair society, including laws we’ve seen previously, like the provision of cities of refuge for cases of unintentional homicide and, once again, the just compensation formula (19:21), “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The Levites and priests are to be supported, since they have no land. Two witnesses are needed to establish guilt. All are to be treated equally. There are to be no bribes, no moving boundary markers, no sacrifices of blemished animals, and no sorcery. If/when a king is chosen, his power will have limits, and he must know and obey the law like any Israelite. Even war is to be reined in. The military draft offers compassionate deferments, fruit trees are not to be destroyed, and cities are to be given a chance to sue for peace. And, in a final demonstration of the need for communal justice, if a body is found out in the open and no one knows who the killer is, the elders of the nearest town must formally seek absolution of bloodguilt.
Tzedek does not simply mean following the law. It connotes fairness and compassion. And tirdof, pursue, is a lot more vigorous than simply “seek.” As noted above, verse 16:20 opens with Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. In the Torah, we are taught, no word is superfluous. Thus, over the centuries, rabbinic commentators went to town with possible explanations for this double tzedek. An 18th c. commentator known as the Nefesh Yehudah wrote that the repetition of tzedek recalled the rabbinic saying, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, the doing of a commandment leads to another commandment, so that upholding justice once will prompt one to do it again.. Several additional explanations were provided by (then-graphic-designer-now-) Rabbi Jonathan Kremer in his 2005 comments, Justice, Pursue Justice :
- Saadyah Gaon (9th-10th c.) – pursue absolute justice.
- Rashi (11th c.) and others – your courts should be exemplary.
- Ramban (13th c.) – tzedek is repeated to teach that justice is paramount, whether the judgment is in your favor or not.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel,(20th c.), as cited in Etz Hayim – Torah and Commentary, “You must actively pursue justice”
- Simcha Bunim, “The means you use to pursue justice must also be just.”
- The Sefat Emet (19th c.) -“We have to keep pursuing justice, knowing that we have not yet attained it.”
Kremer continues, after the Sefat Emet, “you must pursue justice because it is nearly impossible to achieve a truly just society, much as we must pursue shalom – wholeness, peace, likewise a virtually unachievable goal. …The active, tenacious pursuit of justice is what will ultimately let us live at peace with ourselves and our neighbors.”
As my own children grew and encountered injustices of varying degrees and importance, I tried to teach them that, while the world is not inherently fair, we must still try to make it as fair as we can. This can be discouraging, but I have found that wrongs are righted just often enough to prevent discouragement from turning to despair.
#477 A guy was driving when a policeman pulled him over. He rolled down his window and said to the officer, “Is there a problem, Officer?”
“No problem at all. I just observed your safe driving and am pleased to award you a $5,000 Safe Driver Award. Congratulations. What do you think you’re going to do with the money?”
He thought for a minute and said, “Well, I guess I’ll go get that drivers’ license.”
The lady sitting in the passenger seat said to the policeman, “Oh, don’t pay attention to him – he’s a smartass when he’s drunk and stoned.”
The guy from the back seat said, “I TOLD you guys we wouldn’t get far in a stolen car!”
At that moment, there was a knock from the trunk and a muffled voice said, “Are we over the border yet?
#603A police officer in a small town stopped a motorist who was speeding down Main Street.
“But officer.” the man began, “I can explain.”
“Just be quiet,” snapped the officer. “I’m going to let you cool your heels in jail until the chief gets back…”
“But officer, I just wanted to say….”
“And I said to keep quiet! You’re going to jail!”
A few hours later the officer looked in on his prisoner and said, “Lucky for you that the chief is at his daughter’s wedding. He’ll be in a good mood when he gets back.”
“Don’t count on it,” answered the fellow in the cell. “I’m the groom.”
Judge: I know you, don’t I?
Defendant: Uh, yes.
Judge: All right, tell me, how do I know you?
Defendant: Judge, do I have to tell you?
Judge: Of course, you might be obstructing justice not to tell me.
Defendant: Okay. I was your bookie.
Attorney: At the scene of the accident, did you tell the constable you had never felt better in your life?
Farmer: That’s right.
Attorney: Well, then, how is it that you are now claiming you were seriously injured when my client’s auto hit your wagon?
Farmer: When the constable arrived, he went over to my horse, who had a broken leg, and shot him. Then he went over to Rover, my dog, who was all banged up, and shot him. When he asked me how I felt, I just thought under the circumstances, it was a wise choice of words to say I’ve never felt better in my life.
Judge: Is there any reason you could not serve as a juror in this case?
Juror: I don’t want to be away from my job that long.
Judge: Can’t they do without you at work?
Juror: Yes, but I don’t want them to know it.
Cannonical Murphy’s Laws of Combat [selected]
23. Teamwork is essential; it gives the enemy other people to shoot at.
24. Don’t look conspicuous; it draws fire. For this reason, it is not at all uncommon for aircraft carriers to be known as bomb magnets.
31. If the enemy is within range, so are you.
32. The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire.
41. When both sides are convinced they’re about to lose, they’re both right.
55. The one item you need is always in short supply.
56. Interchangeable parts aren’t.
75. If enough data is collected, a board of inquiry can prove anything.
103. The self-importance of a superior is inversely proportional to his position in the hierarchy (as is his deviousness and mischievousness).
104. There is always a way, and it usually doesn’t work.
131. When a front line soldier overhears two General Staff officers conferring, he has fallen back too far.
133. If at first you don’t succeed, then bomb disposal probably isn’t for you.
Justice Quotes and Quotations
It is always wise, as it is also fair, to test a man by the standards of his own day, and not by those of another. – Odell Shepard
The strictest justice is sometimes the greatest injustice. – Terence
A fox should not be on the jury at a goose’s trial. – Thomas Fuller
The Court’s authority – possessed of neither the purse nor the sword -ultimately rests on substantial public confidence in its moral sanctions. – Felix Frankfurter
Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. – St. Augustine
This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong. – Winston Churchill
The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. – Proverbs
He who decides a case without hearing the other side, though he decide justly, cannot be considered just. – Seneca