Shoftim is one of our more famous passages. It focuses on the development of a society based on the concept of justice. Easily the most famous passage from this portion is from 16:20 and the phrase tzedek tzdek tirdof; justice justice shall you pursue. We live in a society where that belief in the supremacy of “justice” is constantly debated. The pandemic has exposed the inequalities of health care access and other issues. There is much to be done to bring about a repairing of the world within the context if the value of tzedek.
Let me also suggest another aspect of this verse. It is something that I have been thinking about, especially as we have entered the month of Elul and the challenge from tradition to begin to prepare our souls for the soon to arrive Holidays. Look at the verse and the repetition of the word tzedek. There have been many interpretations of why Torah repeats the word as classic Biblical interpretation reminds us that there is a purpose for such repetition. One tzedek can obviously refer to the need to do tikun olom, with the focus on bringing about that just and equitable society. That second tzedek, I suggest can refer to our own soul and self. Rabbi Twerski (z’l) in his “Living Each Week” says that we are not only called upon to create a system of justice (courts, judges etc) but that we are also called on to develop a “judge” and an “enforcing officer” within each of us. “Every person has the obligation to sit in judgement on his own actions”. (p.407). So the obvious question, who is judges us?
Let me suggest that this question is very meaningful, especially at this season of the year. Many of us will experience the liturgy of the Holidays and be called on the reflect and repent. The ashamnu and al chet confessionals on the Holidays will bring this into focus. Does God forgive? Do we need to find a method to forgive ourselves? Are the Holidays about self forgiveness? Indeed, the texts in many ways support this. As we seek justice for our own self, do we need to reflect and come to grips with the regrets that we may have? Do we allow these regrets to impact who we are and what we do? Can we find ways to let go of these regrets? After all, what was we cannot change. The choices we made have been made, and to paraphrase an old country song , what could have been, but never was, was never meant to be!
How do we, shall we judge our self? That question lurks within this most famous of passages. Of course, our tradition gives us an answer, we are asked to judge our life, our souls, our actions against the ethical and moral values of Jewish tradition. And not just on one day, but every moment of every day. The pursuit of justice, for our community and for our own self, is a full time calling. The question always remains: do we have the courage to live for and work for and model this value of tzedek?
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.