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Judaism: Justice and the Judges

"Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you." But what does Justice really mean?
Published: Thursday, August 12, 2010 8:27 PM


A few weeks ago we looked at how a judge is trained. A reader emailed to ask why the focus was on the  administrators of justice and not on justice itself. I replied that at the appropriate moment I would examine the concept of justice. That moment is this week when the portion presents us with the immortal words, “Tzedek  tzedek tir’dof”, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deut. 16:21). The sages say a great deal about the doubling of “tzedek”, and their views have been explained over the years in OzTorah. This year let us draw a picture of “tzedek tzedek”.

Almost inevitably we see it as a pair of scales with a “tzedek” on each side, one “tzedek” balancing the other.  That’s what justice is – balance in society, each group, each individual, being balanced against the other, the  “haves” and the “have nots”, the “us” and ”them”. Each side has a duty to the other. Each side has its rights – and its obligations. Justice does not favour either side alone but both of them.

A dream world? Certainly. Difficult to conceive, hard to achieve. The Torah is under no illusions that the ideal can be easily attained. That’s why it says “tzedek tzedek tir’dof”, “Justice, justice *shall you pursue*”. You may not get to the goal, but you have to pursue it and make the effort. Time after time you will agonize over the elusive
balance. How do I allow for the rights of others and accept them as made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) when it will probably entail curtailing my own rights and self-image? How do I ensure that I do not promote my own “tzedek” at the expense of the others?

No wonder the Psalm for Tuesday (Psalm 82) tells us that the Divine Judge must be present beside the human judges, criticizing them for the times when they do not exert themselves enough to improve the balance in their society.

A King Without a People

When a king ascends his throne, says the Torah, “He shall write for himself a copy of this Torah and it shall be with him all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:18). What a contrast – other kings are known by the crown on their head, whilst an Israelite king is known by the book that is with him. It almost seems as though a non-Israelite king
hardly needs a people but a Jewish king cannot possibly hold office without a people: The people comes first: “from the midst of your brethren shall you appoint a king” (verse 16). The king also needs a people because the book that accompanies him spells out how they are to relate to each other.

After the death of Solomon the relationship of the royal family to the people broke down, and the nation split into two. Under Solomon things had been tense but now they became impossible. Rehoboam told the people, “My father chastised you with whips; I will chastise you with scorpions”, and the people sadly concluded, “What portion have we in David (i.e. in the Davidic dynasty)?“ (I Kings 12:14, 16).