This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, (Deuteronomy 16:18ff) covers many familiar themes. The call not to follow idolatry, rules of engagement when entering Canaan, even rules for establishing a monarchy ( perhaps a reflection on when Deuteronomy dates from, during the 7th century BCE reign of Josiah who sought to create a reformation of the cult which was being corrupted) and more. The passage also contains one of the most famous verse in all of Torah. In the opening section of the portion, Moses instructs the people that when they enter the land they are set up a system of civil and religious authority. “Magistrates and officials” for the tribes shall be appointed (16:18) and these shall deal with people in a fair and equitable manner for “Justice justice shall you pursue. that you may thrive and occupy the land that God is giving you”. (16:20). No doubt many colleagues will drash on this verse this Shabbat.
But let us look at something else that I also think speaks to our stage in life. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in his “Living Each Week”, comments on the first verse of the portion that has Moses saying that the people should take judges and magistrates for yourself. He looks at the use of the singular in the text of “you” (l’cha) and says that this does not only apply to society at large “but also an order to each individual to develop a “judge” and an “enforcing officer” within himself. Every person has the obligation to sit in judgement on his own actions.” (407)
Once again, Torah and commentary brings us up short. How meaningful is this insight, especially now that we are in the month of Elul, when this idea of self judgement begins to take hold as we slowly head into Rosh Hoshonnah and Yom Kippur, much of whose liturgy echoes this interpretation. The text asks how we judge our own self and our own actions? How do we incorporate the concept of tzedek, justice, into our own life and has that concept changed as we have aged? Have, as we have aged, seen a more personal meaning to this concept. one that motivates us to “give back” to society? The phrase in 16:20 has the verb tirdof, from the root for pursue (think of many congregations named rodef shalom–pursuer of peace), the sense from that word is that seeking a just society is an on-going act, one that never ends.
So too, we hope, that small voice that rests within each of us that propels us to seek the right in society, to give back to our community in some way that makes our little part of it better. Remember that Pirke Avot passage that says while we are not responsible to save the entire world, we are responsible for our small part of it. How many of us know people who, as they mature, come to realize that they have a part to play in the seeking and pursuit of a just society and world and who, in that realization, change the way they live and become active in some cause or belief. Maybe it is that little voice for justice that rests within each soul, just waiting for the moment to speak. Maybe it is a desire to leave a legacy not of material things, but of spiritual good. Whatever the motivation, we do see so many of our generation now having the time and inclination to listen to that voice, a voice that all too often was muted and repressed.
Rabbi Richard F Address