Parashat Shoftim and pursuit of justice

Torah and its focus on the rule of law

This week’s portion is called Shoftim, or “Judges” in English. The first three verses speak about appointing judges and how they should act. And, in these verses, is one of the most famous and often quoted phrases within the Bible:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.
The famous phrase is: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue. This is an interesting and unusual Hebrew construction that almost demands interpretation because it is so unusual. You see there is verb construction in Hebrew that intensifies the meaning of the verb. The absolute infinitive is paired with the conjugated verb to intensify the meaning. OK, forget the grammar lesson; let me just give you an example. In the Garden of Eden, God says to Eve eat from any tree in the garden, except for that one because if you do, mot tamut, you shall surely die. “You shall surely” verb, that’s the construction. But here, it’s a repetition of a noun and that’s kind of special, so it has to be interpreted.
Interpretation number one: Rabbi Ze’ev of Zbarzh believed “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as excessive righteousness, being holier than thou, you shall chase away. Just as we can sin by disregarding what is just, we can also sin by being overly scrupulous.
Interpretation number two: Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa interprets the phrase as “with justice you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.” That is, the ends don’t justify the means and we can’t have true justice if we lie or cheat to achieve it.
All of these instructions for setting up the rule of law are not some theoretical musings on the ideal justice system. Rather, we do all of this for the very practical purpose, as it says in our section, “that you may thrive.” We are blessed to live in the United States where we enjoy, however imperfect it may be, the rule of law. And we are prosperous in part because we live by the rule of law.
The counterexamples are all out there. If you don’t have judges with one set of laws, you end up with Somalia, where the strongest warlords impose their capricious rule. If judges are subject to bribery, influence, or patronage, you end up with Russia. In Russia, it’s not what you know as much as whom you know, that determines if you can get ahead. Or, once you’ve gotten ahead, whether you can keep your place.
We are blessed to live in the United States under the rule of law. Let us pursue and establish justice, that we may continue to thrive.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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