"Moses Pleading With Israel" from a 1907 postcard
"Moses Pleading With Israel" from a 1907 postcard

Always pursue justice, and you’ll always do your best

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

As luck would have it, when the Torah portions for the year were divvied up among all of J.’s contributing writers, I happened to get this week’s portion, Shoftim. I can say, boldly, that this is the best portion in the entire Torah! (I must admit, I have been known to declare that about other parashahs, too. There are many great ones! But I think Shoftim is a serious contender for the gold.)

This portion sets up an ethical legal system which continues to guide secular law today. And it is all based on the incredibly powerful directive tzedek, tzedek tirdof! (Justice, justice shall you pursue!)

These very famous words, found at the beginning of this week’s reading, are the foundation for the ethical framework in which our legal system was constructed.

Let’s step back for a moment.

This Torah portion, found in the middle of the book of Deuteronomy — the last book of the Torah — is given to our ancestors as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  In Hebrew, this final book of the Torah is called Devarim (words). Its name honors the words that are Moses’s great legacy. Having travelled for 39.9 years through a hot, dusty wilderness, a new generation of Israelites, ready to set up a free society, awaits the final hike across the Jordan and into Israel. In the first chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses is recounting the entire journey that the Israelites had travelled with him.

Moses will die in the desert, just before the Israelites continue on into the Promised Land. So the instructions of this week’s Torah portion are particularly important!

As we prepare for the adventures of autonomy, we are instructed to pursue justice always.

Much ink has been spilled about the verb tirdof (you shall pursue). Why doesn’t the Torah say something like “justice, justice, you must achieve”? Even before we enter the Land of Israel, it is clear that the complexities of governing a free society will pose big challenges. As long as we are always in pursuit of justice, we will navigate the challenges and do our best.

While this grand instruction remains so valuable, I think what makes this Torah portion (one of) my favorite(s) is that it is not only filled with lofty ideals, but, rather, there are some very specific and focused instructions that help to define the amorphous pursuit of justice.

For example, we are instructed never to chop down the fruit-bearing trees of our enemies. Even in a time of war, a respect for the land and future growth must prevail. “Don’t wantonly destroy that which will sustain life,” the Torah teaches. “Look at the big picture.”

And, there are these remarkable instructions: A person who is called to defend the community but who has built a new house and not lived in it, or who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it, or has gotten engaged but not had a chance to be married, must be given the opportunity to return home and not go to war.

A respect for the hopes, dreams and possibilities of the future are part of a just society.

If our own dreams are honored, the pursuit of justice will certainly lead us to honoring the dreams and humanity of others. This Torah portion gives us both an aspirational and a practical vision for building our very own society.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.