Life, liberty, and the pursuit of…justice

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim (Judges). While there are many notable mitzvot (commandments) in this parsha, one stands out as particularly central for me. “Justice, justice you shall pursue/chase/hunt/run after.”

Let me pause here to explain my notation – the italicized words above are an attempt to translate the subtle shades of meaning in a single Hebrew word (the root R.D.F, imperative form). This is why we need day schools, people – if you want (your children) to engage in a meaningful relationship with Jewish texts, it helps to have direct access to their meanings. Hebrew is a beautiful, poetic language, with far fewer words than English; therefore it is possible to speak and write in complexly layered metaphors that become cumbersome in translation.

The quote is interesting for a few reasons:

First, the word “justice” is repeated twice, and we know that the Torah wastes no words. Why the repetition? What do we learn from it that we wouldn’t understand with just a single “justice?” Common ways to resolve this question include:

  • “Justice [and only] justice you shall pursue.”
  • Pursue justice, using only just means (no cutting corners when it comes to justice).
  • Justice and righteousness (another way to translate the word “tzedek”) you shall pursue.
  • the repetition is there to emphasize the importance of the concept.

The second reason the phrase stands out is that we are not usually commanded to pursue or chase anything. We keep/observe commandments like the Sabbath and holidays, but we don’t chase them. I’ve always thought that the verb choice in this case indicates the inherent impossible nature of the task. Of course we will never achieve perfect justice, but we are instructed to pursue it nonetheless, because that is the kind of society we want to live in, and the kind of people we want to be.

The third reason I love this phrase is that Tzedek is the root of the word Tzedakah, which I grew up “giving.” The assumption we are basically forced into by “giving” Tzedakah is that Tzedakah means charity or donations, which we also “give.” The Hebrew, however, yields a different understanding – Tzedakah is justice/righteousness. Tzedakah isn’t just about giving money (though that is one way to pursue it). It is about our obligation to continually strive towards increasing justice and righteousness in ourselves and in our society.

As we sail through the month of Elul toward the start of a new year, one conversation we could have in our own homes is to consider what would be different in our lives if we dedicated some extra time and energy to chasing/hunting righteousness and justice in the world.