By Emma Drongowski
JCUA’s AVODAH Organizing Fellow
This past week, we read Parshat Shoftim, from the book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion outlines a set of guidelines for ethical and moral behaviors- a very common theme in Jewish holy texts. Shoftim identifies the proper methods for appointing judges, procedures for judicial systems, warnings against worshiping idols, condemnations for cutting down trees, and finally it reads “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- ”Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” This statement is a direct call for action; a commandment to pursue justice with very little wiggle room for interpretation or negotiation. This parsha is one of the most frequently cited passages from Jewish activists as a prime example of the way that Judaism calls upon us to pursue social justice.
But this phrase (the very phrase that appears on JCUA t-shirts) is not as straightforward as it first appears. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof- Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. The Torah is a concisely written document, with little that is superfluous. With the understanding that every word holds meaning, what does it mean that tzedek is repeated twice? As one can imagine, there are a few Rabbis who have a thought or two on the topic. The 11th century French rabbi Rashi tells us that this line means you should seek out a good court. The duplication is calling our attention not only to the obligation of the judges to judge wisely, but of the people to seek out good judges and to make sure that the court system is a good one. Another thinker believed that one tzedek is what we bring to those who are hurting and one tzedek is how we motivate those who are complacent to do more to affect change. Another, less sophisticated way to think about it is that justice is simply really, REALLY important, and the Torah is jumping up and down and waving its arms at us to understand how crucial it is for us to pursue justice.
There is no one correct answer to this Talmudic puzzle. For me, the double usage of “justice” reminds me to be intentional and insistent on incorporating Tzedek into all aspects of my life. As I have grown into adulthood, I have attempted to pursue justice by donating to charity, by volunteering for local campaigns, and by buying ethically sourced food products. Around this time last year, I read Parshat Shoftim as a direct call to me, as a moral imperative to pursue justice in my professional as well as my personal life. I made the decision to join AVODAH, the Jewish Service Corps, and will be working this year at JCUA as the AVODAH Organizing Fellow. For me, Parshat Shoftim instructs me that I cannot opt into tzedek when it is convenient, and that there are no days off from pursuing justice. It calls on me to pursue justice in my work, in my relationships with friends and family, in my interactions with strangers, in the way I spend my money, the movies I watch, the news I consume, and the things that I post on social media.
For me, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof means to continually explore what it means to pursue justice as both a Jew and as an activist. One tzedek calls me to explore how my Jewish values hold me accountable to pursuing justice, and one tzedek compels me to ensure my Jewish community is doing the same. This year, I am so excited to explore this duality, and engage in conversation on what it means to be both Jewish and an activist, and therefore how to go about being a Jewish activist. Becoming a part of JCUA was simply the first step in my lifelong journey to pursue and maybe one day achieve, justice.
Rabbi Robert Marx, JCUA’s founder, reflects on the second tzedek: