Justice, Justice Shall We Pursue

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Moses outlines laws that place justice at the center of Jewish life in this week’s Torah portion. Justice has been redefined in our lifetimes for another important segment of society.

SHOFTIM,
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
 
Moses outlines laws that place justice at the center of Jewish life in this week’s Torah portion. He creates a foundation for a just society through a series of laws that establish a fair judicial system, limit the power of communal leaders and set city boundaries that offer refuge and protection from the destructiveness of war. 
 
A well-known phrase first appears in this text: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” which translates to “justice, justice you shall pursue.” This phrase has been a refrain for generations of activists who pursue the prophetic imperative to fix what is broken in our world. When a phrase from the Torah is so often quoted, it’s worth exploring what it really means.  
 
Many view the repetition of the word “justice” as emphasizing its importance. The command is to pursue justice, “so that you may live and flourish in the land of Israel.” No justice, no peace. 
 
Yet the echo of this word also points toward ways the concept of “justice” has echoed and evolved over time. Much of what was considered just in biblical times would be considered barbaric in today’s world. The ancient rabbis interpreted the laws to fit their times. We do the same today. 
 
Likewise, our nation’s founders believed they were establishing a just society. While there was great wisdom in the system of governance they created, their vision was deeply flawed by their era: Justice and equal rights were extended to white men but not to women or African Americans.  
 
Justice has been redefined in our lifetimes for another important segment of society, emerging faster than many of us ever imagined. Thirty years ago, rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people were nonexistent. They were invisible in popular culture and could, without legal recourse, be arrested, fired from jobs, thrown out of the army, and denied access to loved ones in the hospital. Homophobic violence was sanctioned. Anti-discrimination laws did not exist.
 
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Even as most Americans celebrate this justice, others respond with fear, denial, anger and ignorance. There is still much work to be done for the LGBTQ community, in many parts of the world, and for all people. We celebrate a momentary victory while the timeless quest toward justice unfolds.
 
A Chasidic teaching suggests that the most compelling moment in this week’s Torah portion occurs not when Moses says the word “justice” twice, but when he ends that sentence with the word tirdof: “pursue.” This interpretation suggests that true justice will exist only in the world to come. We will never be able to achieve a completely just society, yet we are commanded to its pursuit. 
 
I like to think of tirdof as the physical embodiment of prayer. We bring our our bodies, resources, and skills to the work of perfection. When our prayer takes the form of the pursuit of justice, we align ourselves with the foundational force of the universe that seeks healing and justice. 
 
In this interpretation of “tirdof,” the pursuit of justice could be viewed as a spiritual practice. Each of us must learn how to live knowing that injustice will never be completely eliminated. Even if we devoted every single waking moment to making the world a better place, it would not be perfect. So we must find ways to balance our lives so that we can continue to pursue justice without giving in to despair or exhaustion. 
 
This heightens the importance of savoring moments when justice prevails, when lives change for the better, so as to recharge ourselves for injustice that inevitably lies ahead. Learning to both enjoy the blessings of our lives and to never stop fighting for the rights of others to live full, happy lives is a form of meditation, a way of connecting with the concept of justice in this week’s Torah portion that honors the imperatives and laws Moses shared as he formed a new society. 
 
As we ponder the phrase, may we redouble our efforts toward justice, may we remember that the quest for justice is the foundation upon which holiness rests and that sacredness emerges through our ability to sustain ourselves for this “pursuit.” 
 
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is the interim rabbi at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia. She is co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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