Shoftim explores a variety of issues that help determine a society. At the very beginning of the passage comes the famous three words tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue. How timely again is Torah! So many of us seem frustrated at the world in which we live, a society that seems to be ignoring this exhortation. How can we begin to conceptualize these words in our world? I wanted to look at this and remind us that this all starts with each of us, of how we see these three words relating to our own life experience. How can we incorporate these words in our life? We need not, as Pirke Avot reminds us, save the entire world. No, we are called on to take care of our small part of it and if we do that, we are one step closer to a society of equality and justice.
So, a formula, or a mnemonic to help construct our approach to this “call”. Tradition loves to unpack a word and see what message can be deduced from it. Sometime tradition does this with numbers. Gematria is what that is called and we see what the letters equate to in numbers and then see what those numbers add up to in new words. Sometimes we take each letter of a word and see what message can be learned. So for this week, we look at the word for justice, tzedek. The first letter, the tzadi calls to mind the word tzelem, the reminder that we are created (see Genesis 1) b’tzelem elohim: in a sacred image. What can that mean? Perhaps that we need to see a reflection of God in each person we encounter. That each person is an image of something sacred and if we see that, it can help change how we relate and how we function as a society.
The second letter is the daled which in this case can stand for the word dugma. This is the Hebrew for the word example. In seeing each person as a representative of the sacred, we can live so as to be an example of living a sacred life. This is a life based on being that role model for the people we come in contact with, especially children and grandchildren, who, as we know, often view us as role models. We can set an example of how to live and function in society by modeling that behavior based on seeing each person as tzelem.
Koph, the final letter in tzedek, stands for kodesh, holiness. If we see each person as a reflection of the sacred and relate to that by setting an example of relating to each person as such, then we produce a society and life of holiness. We pursue a just and equitable world. We set an example. We reflect in life the fact that we have a spark of divine creation in each of us. A simple formula for bringing justice into our lives. Simple, yet we still have yet to master this.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.