"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907
"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907

Is the entire Torah an effort to explain this single line?

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


Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9


This week’s portion, Shoftim, contains probably the most famous line in all of the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Arguably, there are a few other verses nearly as famous as this one. So maybe I should say that this week’s portion contains probably the most important line in all of the Torah and that the entire Torah is an effort to explain this verse.

So many questions arise from this five-word instruction. First of all, what does “tzedek,” or justice, mean? From the word “tzedek,” we derive the well-known “tzedakah,” most often mistranslated as “charity.” I prefer to translate tzedakah a little differently: To me, it means “justiceness.”

Now I know that’s not a real word in English, but I’m taking the liberty here to use the word that I’ve taught to countless students over the years, as I’ve tried to explain the concept of tzedakah. “Justiceness” is a noun. It refers to the concept of justice as a larger system or value than merely justice or fairness. Rather, I use justiceness to mean that justice is part of an overarching concept of moral and ethical rightness. Justiceness is the theoretical ideal that gives us practical applications in justice. Or at least that’s how I’m using this word that I made up.

Now back to tzedek. It means some kind of fairness or rightness that is hard to attain and requires tremendous care and thought to approximate. Justice is a concept that makes people feel “right-treated” in the world. From it comes equanimity and generosity, because people feel secure in receiving what they are entitled to. So justice should always be pursued. It’s the foundation of a meaningful society based on sacred interactions.

Now to question No. 2: Why is the word “justice” repeated? Why not simply “Justice shall you pursue”? That, alone, is an important instruction. But the Torah compels us to work for “justice, justice” — an emphasized version of justice. It’s highlighted and attention-grabbing when a word is repeated. The ancient rabbis taught that there were no extraneous words in the Torah. Certainly, then, the second iteration of “justice” is either for emphasis or perhaps to give us a second or nuanced definition of tzedek.

“Tirdof.” Why does the Torah use the verb “pursue”? Why not instruct us: Justice, justice shall you achieve. Or justice, justice shall you create. Justice, justice shall you live by. No, instead we get this motivating yet exhausting verb “pursue.” Will we spend generations pursuing it but never achieving it? Or will we pursue and eventually reach justice? Or is the importance in the act of pursuing it? Maybe if we dedicate our lives to pursuing justice, we’ll live in such a way that rightness and fairness will, in fact, be present in our society.

To me, this is a quintessential Jewish line in the Torah. To understand Judaism, one must study this verse. Does its message give us hope or a feeling of hopelessness? If we will spend all eternity pursuing something that we may not achieve, will we end up frustrated and empty?  Will we feel like Moses did as he walked and walked, pursuing the Promised Land but never arriving? He pursued it his entire life and did not enter it. But the quality of his pursuit and his search were extraordinary. And that search made us who we are today as a people.

The instruction to pursue justice inspires us to live Jewish lives of depth and meaning. If we follow this one instruction to pursue justice, our lives will inherently be filled with valuable enterprises and honorable behavior. Moses’ life was filled with meaning, even as he wandered in the desert, in pursuit of the land of Israel.

After opening with the instruction “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the Torah portion goes on to give some examples of what righteous choices might look like. Some verses instruct us how to treat other people.

My favorite verse has always been an instruction to have mercy on fruit trees if we conquer a new land. This is a practical instruction because fruit trees provide nourishment. But it’s also a beautiful reminder of our need to draw boundaries. We must be aware of the effects of our actions at all times. Even in the midst of war, we are commanded to consider the fruit trees — and not plunder unnecessarily. If we can attempt to treat fruit trees with respect in the midst of a war, how much more so should we be able to treat other humans with respect.

Justice, justice shall you pursue. This one instruction might be the greatest line in the Torah. I’d say it’s the most Jewish line in the Torah.

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.