By Rabbi Jason Bonder
Last year, I was sitting in a learning session led by the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism, Rabbi Josh Weinberg. He made an important observation about a verse in this week’s portion, and I wrote it down immediately.
In our portion of Shotftim this week, we encounter a widely quoted commandment — “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice, shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20). When presenting this verse, Weinberg quibbled, “Many of us quote this so much that we can forget there’s more to the verse.”
That line is still in my notebook from that session. When I returned to my notes, one year and one pandemic later, that comment leapt of the page. This year, reading further into the verse is crucial. Here is the verse in its entirety.
“Justice, justice, shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
The coronavirus pandemic and this verse from Torah remind us that “justice” is not only a slogan or catchy phrase. It is a matter of life and death. If we are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met, and if we live lives with a fair amount of comfort, it may be easy for us to forget the urgency of pursuing justice.
The verse quoted above is the translation from the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation. I found it interesting that in the 1985 society translation of this very same verse, the English reads, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” I am sure there is good reason for the word choice and change. Yet I can’t help but wonder if in the translation of the word tichyeh (live or thrive) there is a reflection of a kind of lack of urgency that is so natural to human behavior.
Reading beyond the first words does not mean that the beginning of the verse isn’t crucial. In fact, with a renewed sense that the pursuit of justice is imperative, the words carry with them great lessons for today as we navigate the uncharted waters of COVID-19.
The 11th-century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) learns from this verse that you have to go and pursue justice by seeking out a good court. If you were to take the easy path of taking your dispute or problem to any old court, you may wind up with a ruling that is less than just. In our modern day when the information available to us is truly endless, this teaching becomes quite relevant to the idea of justice.
When we have questions about how to behave safely when it comes to transmission of the virus, we cannot rely on the very first website we find or the email sent to us by a friend. We have to pursue the knowledge of the experts. We must find the very brightest and most accomplished folks who are dedicating themselves to keeping us safe from coronavirus
The 13th-century sage Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman) builds on the commentary of Rashi, saying that you must leave your own place to find justice if you know there is a place where the sages are superior.
The 12th-century scholar Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra finds great meaning in the repetition of the word “justice.” He argues that this duplication is there in the Torah to remind us that justice sometimes results in loss and other times in gain. We must pursue justice regardless.
In our trying times, it is so important to ask ourselves, am I opposed to behaving a certain way because it is inconvenient or is it because it is unjust? If wearing a mask makes me feel uncool or, if wearing a mask makes me feel itchy, is that a case of injustice? No. This is what Ibn Ezra warned of all those years ago. Sometimes, in the pursuit of justice, we are inconvenienced.
Ibn Ezra follows up on the previous explanation with another thought. He says that perhaps “justice” is written twice to remind us that we must pursue justice time and time again, all the days of our lives. This means that each day is another opportunity to do the right thing and protect others, even if we messed up yesterday.
Living through this pandemic has taken its toll, and we are not even close to done. That can be overwhelming. But it can also inspire us to makes sure that we are making our society as fair and just as possible when the stakes are so very high.
I conclude with a huge thank you to all of the essential workers who are out there saving and sustaining us. Justice, justice, may we pursue, so that all of us may live and thrive in a more equitable world.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.