The subject of “Justice” is elevated to a very high rung in Mishpatim, this week’s Parsha. What do we mean by Justice? How is Justice practiced by judges, leaders and between members of society? The subject could not be more relevant to our own times. From the opening verses:
“Judges and officers, you shall appoint in all your gates, which the Ineffable your God has given to each of you, tribe by tribe. And they shall judge the people righteous judgement. You shall not pervert judgement; you shall be impartial in judgement; neither shall you take a bribe; nor pervert the words of the righteous. Justice, Justice you shall pursue that you may live and the land which the Ineffable provides for you.”
Joseph Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of The British Empire, in his commentary in the Soncino Bible, offers a number of teachings on this subject. Along with other commentators he notes the repetition of the word Tzedek - Justice. This emphasis on Justice is the “supreme duty of even-handed justice for all.” We all know of the struggle of the Hebrew prophets against injustice. The Hebrew psalms contain hundreds of verses about Justice. “Righteous and justice are the foundation of Your throne...”. “Of love and justice, I will sing...”.
The original Hebrew indicates that Moses is speaking to each individual, and not the community as a whole. Each individual is responsible for taking part in creating and ensuring a Just society. Heschel teaches that it is not just respect for Justice but, actively pursuing Justice, becoming an activist for Justice. A Hasidic teaching about the meaning of “all your gates” offers the insight that this means “all the gates of your soul.” How we speak to others, how we see, how we treat others all require the presence of Shoftim v’Shotrim.
Hertz also reminds us that our concept of Justice is different than the Greek concept. The Greek concept, he explains, implies “a harmonious arrangement of society by which every human peg is put into an appropriate hole...it stresses the inequalities of human nature.” That concept, sadly, still exists. In Judaism it is quite different as our value culture acknowledges the essential equality of human beings. From Genesis, we are taught that all humans are created in the divine image; and, from rabbinic Judaism, that each human life is sacred.
These teaching from this Parsha and centuries of suffering and creative renewal have encouraged us to continue to be “pursuers of Justice” in our own times. That is also why it pains us so to witness injustices perpetrated by some Jewish leaders on others today. Tekiah! Reb David