Shoftim continues the dramatic summaries of Moses. These final sermons are filled with drama, passion and pathos, as well as laws and regulations. This portion is no different as it contains a wealth of ideas, from establishing legal systems to rules of warfare. All the while, as you read the passage, the familar motif continues: do not worship other gods. Easily the most famous passage in the portion is [16:20], tzedek tzedek tirdof–justice, justice shall you pursue. Now the context of the verse is dealing with the appointment of magistrates and judges who shall be impartial.
Generations of commentators have looked at this verse to explain Judaism’s passion for a just society, for an emphasis on social justice and for the call to repair or fix the world (tikkun olam). No need to review these interpretations as many colleagues will preach on this over this Shabbat. But in thinking about our generation, I began to consider what or how we judge? What is our moral compass, what keeps us from just saying, at this stage of life, “forget it, let me do what I want, when I want and who cares anyway”? And yes, no doubt, some of us may know people who,, as they age, do adopt this philosophy. But most do not. In fact, if anything, many seem to embrace this verse, and the morality that it implies.
So I wondered, what is it that keeps us honest? What value or goal “pursues” us? If you have been following this space for the past few weeks, you know that these Torah portions in Elul, all leading up to Rosh Hashanah, do carry with them profound and heavy messages of self reflection and introspection. The Haftarot combine to carry the theme of consolation as well. Is there something taking place in our souls that may be pursuing us which triggers a more profound and “just” approach to life? What is pursuing us?
Let me suggest that what is pursuing us is the reality of our own mortality. That reality, undeniable at this stage of life, has, I suggest, a profound impact on our souls and psyche. This reality, for some, has a major transformative effect, for it raises a question–in our subconscious–of meaning. It allows us to begin to contemplate our own legacy. What do we wish of us to remain behind after we die? These are not material things. These are the really important things. That is what is pursuing us, this reality of mortality and the search for what, of meaning, can we leave of us. To wrap that search in the concept of justice is to leave behind a memory of a life well lived and a source of inspiration for those who follow.
Rabbi Richard F Address