We Sure Gave it to Them! – Rabbinic Commentary on Justice

Commentary on Parashat Shoftim

Editor’s note: This past Shabbat, the new rabbi at my congregation, Rabbi Annie Tucker, spoke about “Shoftim,” the Torah portion that contains the strong call to action on which much of JCUA’s work is based. Read on for an inspiring look at the decapitated calf, and other Torah lessons.

— Judy Levey, JCUA Executive Director

By Rabbi Annie Tucker
Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah
Wilmette, Ill.

Rabbi Annie Tucker, Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah

Rabbi Tucker

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff tells the story of his own rabbi, Arnold Wolf, of blessed memory, who as a young preacher in an urban synagogue had a congregant who was a notorious slumlord.

One Shabbat, Rabbi Wolf decided that he had no choice but to finally address the issue and delivered a powerful sermon denouncing economic injustice and the cruelty of allowing other human beings to live in substandard conditions, doing everything short of actually naming the man out loud. When services concluded, Rabbi Wolf was a bit anxious as he saw his congregant coming to approach him at the kiddush table (where a light meal was being served). “Boy, Rabbi,” he said with a smile. “We sure gave it to them this morning!”

If we are being honest, we can perhaps see a bit of ourselves in the character of the clueless congregant. It is difficult, indeed, to recognize and acknowledge our personal shortcomings and areas of responsibility in this world. As much as we may wish for our spiritual or political leaders to be voices of conscience, we may also feel uncomfortable or threatened when we see that they are talking to us rather than chastising them. Rabbi Gutoff writes, “Call attention to slavery in North Africa, to child labor in China, to anti-Semitism in the Former Soviet Union…and you will be congratulated. But present people with a problem in their own camp, and that’s a different story.” We may feel more defensive about injustices that play out closer to home because we understand that we have more of an obligation to make them right. We also, of course, have far greater opportunity to do so.

Justice, justice shall you pursue

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – we read in the Torah portion called Parashat Shoftim (Deut. 16:18 – 21:9), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” So important is Judaism’s commitment to right living that our Bible, normally laconic and sparing of words, repeats itself twice, sparking commentators to imagine that each instance of the word “tzedek” must have independent meaning.

The 13th century Spanish commentator, Bahya ben Asher, indicates that tzedek, tzedek is mentioned twice in order to teach “justice under any circumstance…whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or to non-Jew” while his teacher, Ibn Ezra, indicates that the repetition teaches that one should pursue justice whether it would be to his advantage or to his loss. The great Chassidic master Simcha Bunem argues that tzedek, tzedek means “pursue justice justly,” reminding us that righteous goals must be pursued through righteous means, while the Italian rabbi Sforno sees this exhortation as connected to the verses which precede it regarding the selection of judges, instructing us that these dignitaries must be chosen on the basis of character rather than according to wealth or status.

It is not only the noun in our verse, however, but also the verb which teaches us about how justice is to be understood by Jewish tradition. The word tirdof – pursue – is an active one, connoting a zealous chasing after that which a person most ardently desires. In fact, in halakhic (Jewish legal) literature, the word rodef refers to someone who hunts down another person to kill him; it is with this kind of fervor and single-mindedness of purpose that we are supposed to stake out justice in our communities. Tzedek tzedek tirdof is about claiming responsibility for the ills of the world that we live in, whether we were directly responsible for causing them or not. The final section of the Torah portion Shoftim helps to make this point most poignantly.

Assigning responsibility for murder

One of the more esoteric mitzvot (commandments) mentioned in Parashat Shoftim is what is known as the eglah arufah, the law of the broken-necked heifer, which applies to a case in which a dead body is found lying in the open, its slayer’s identity unknown. In such a situation, the town nearest the corpse is to take a young heifer which has yet to be worked and break the animal’s neck, declaring a formula absolving the community from guilt for the terrible murder. I will ask us, for a moment, to bracket the fact that this rite calls upon an innocent animal to be needlessly slaughtered; while this is certainly cruel and unjust by modern standards, the ritualistic killing of animals was unfortunately common in ancient Israel as it was in other communities at that time. Rather, let us consider some of the other striking elements of this strange rite.

Along with animal sacrifice, the idea of avenging death through death was common in the ancient world, and it is widely believed that the eglah arufah was meant to be a stand-in for the killer himself who, as unknown to the community, could not be properly brought to justice as the laws at that time dictated and killed for his crime. What is unusual, however, is that the individuals responsible for performing the ritual of the broken-necked heifer were the elders of the town nearest to where the body was found rather than members of the deceased’s family. While in the ancient world blood redemption – the retaliatory murder of a person who had killed a member of one’s family – was de rigueur, this responsibility generally lay with a relative of the slain who upheld his family’s honor by avenging his kinsman’s death. Here, however, it is not the deceased’s family, but rather the individuals who lived closest to where he perished, who are accountable for the murdered individual’s demise.

Biblical commentator Nechama Leibowitz explores the transfer of responsibility from family to host community, explaining that the eglah arufah is meant to teach that it is not only action but also inaction that can make a person culpable, that we are all responsible when evil is allowed to flourish in our midst. In her words, “The public as a whole and the city nearest to the slain and its elders are all responsible for the terrible deed committed in the field. Their whole way of life, their social order, economic, educational and security institutions are answerable for the murder….Responsibility for wrongdoing does not only lie with the perpetrator himself…. Lack of care and attention are also criminal. Whoever keeps to his own quiet corner and refuses to have anything to do with the ‘evil world,’ who observes oppression and violence but does not stir a finger in protest cannot proclaim with a clear conscience that ‘our hands have not shed this blood’’ (Leibowitz, Studies in Deuteronomy, p. 207-208). In other words – when our world is as broken as the neck of a heifer, claiming that we did not personally cause the problems we see is no defense.

Societal ill for which no one else is claiming proper responsibility

If we stop for a moment to look around I believe that we, too, will find far too many unclaimed bodies lying in fields, not only literal victims of unsolved crimes but also metaphorical situations of societal ill for which no one else is claiming proper responsibility. It is easy to be like the slumlord and imagine that this is all somebody else’s problem. After all, we are not even personally culpable for the issues that plague our communities in the way that the slumlord most certainly was; we do not actively cause the poverty and violence and environmental degradation that we see in the world around us.

Jewish tradition, however, reminds us that it is not enough simply not to cause problems in our communities; we also have a responsibility to be part of their solution. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – reads our parasha – Justice, justice shall you pursue. It is not only refraining from immoral behavior that is our obligation; rather we must actively look to improve the world around us, preventing travesties of justice from occurring in the first place whenever possible and healing the brokenness of our world whenever not.

I could conclude my sermon with a pitch for a particular social justice cause or organization and of course there are countless ones of merit. Over this first month in Wilmette I have been proud to stand with members of our community at the Fierce Women of Faith rally against gun violence, and BHCBE’s Social Action committee is working this year with Family Promise – a group that assists homeless families in various ways. Our own Chicagoland Jewish community – be it JUF, or the Ark, or the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (not to mention those I’m invariably leaving out in my still emerging knowledge of the region!) – does tremendous work in a variety of important areas, as do secular organizations that work on poverty relief and child welfare and environmental protection.

You shouldn’t avoid working for justice

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, reads our parasha – pursue justice in whatever form. Whatever the cause that matters most to you, whatever the issue that moves your heart, whatever the societal ill that makes you crazy – get out and do your small part to make it better. Lo alecha hamelakha ligmor, we read in Pirkei Avot. “You are not required to finish the task.” V’lo atah ben horin l’hibateil mimena – “Yet neither are you free to desist from working on it.”

I close with the well-known story of Honi the circle drawer, who – as many of us will recall – was hard at work planting a carob tree one day when a neighbor interrupted his efforts.

“Why Honi,” said the friend. “Don’t you know that carob trees take 70 years to grow?!? By the time this planting bears fruit, you will be long gone from this earth.”

“Indeed,” replied Honi. “But my grandparents planted carob trees for me to enjoy and I now do the same. I plant this tree for the generations to come.”

We are fast becoming a nation in danger of leaving our world in far worse shape than we found it, a nation passing on to our children and grand-children not carob trees but rather holes in the ozone layer, gaping economic chasms between rich and poor, cities plagued by violence. And perhaps it is exactly this which the double repetition of tzedek, tzedek in this week’s Torah portion is meant to remind us. Tzedek tirdof – Pursue justice for your own sake. Tzedek tirdof – Pursue justice for the sake of your children. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — let us pursue justice together.

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