|Shoftim 5768 - Pursue Justice; Prepare for Worship|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
The theme of justice resounds throughout Torah and into the rest of the Scriptures, but nowhere does it sound more clearly than in three Hebrew words in this week's parasha-tzedek tzedek tirdof: "Justice, justice you shall pursue."
Commentators for millennia have explored the implications of the repeated word tzedek, but they have often overlooked an equally striking aspect of this passage. Immediately after the impassioned call for justice, Torah lays out instructions for proper worship: "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not set up a sacred post-any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make-or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests" (Deut. 16:20-22, NJPS). The following chapter continues the discussion of proper worship with a ban against blemished sacrifices and idolatry.
What is the linkage between justice, which we express through upright conduct toward our fellow human beings, and proper worship, which has to do with our conduct toward God? Doubtless the connections are many, but the clearest one is simply this: We cannot claim to worship the God of Israel unless we pursue justice. Likewise, when we pursue justice, we are worshiping God, or at least setting the stage for worship.
The pursuit of justice, even though essential to worship, plays out in the most practical ways in our daily lives. Yochanan the immerser came to prepare the way of the Lord, but he spoke in the most human terms. After he warned the people of the wrath to come and urged them to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, they asked, "What shall we do then?" Yochanan responded with clear examples of upright behavior:
Preparing the way of the Lord means practicing justice in the most everyday details of our lives. Worship may bring us into the presence of God, but the preparation for worship comes in the presence of humankind.
This message is especially fitting as we enter the month of Elul, the period of spiritual preparation leading up to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (September 29 through October 9 this year). The phrase "spiritual preparation" may lead us to focus inwardly, to seclude ourselves in private times of prayer and meditation. But such practices are only part of the preparation, for we cannot neglect our treatment of other people. Indeed, as Solomon reminds us, "To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21:3, NJPS).
One of the traditional practices during these days of preparation is taking a personal inventory, prayerfully reviewing our deeds over the past year, confessing wrongs we have done, and committing to make amends. "Justice, justice you shall pursue" supports such a practice, since it is expressed in the singular. In the plain sense, Moses is speaking to Israel collectively as a singular "you," but we can also make a midrash here. The Torah is telling each one of us individually to pursue justice. This is a personal matter as well as a communal one, and the words of Yochanan to three different groups suggest three questions for individual self-evaluation:
The opening verse of this week's parasha, Deuteronomy 16:18, provides a fourth, related, criterion for self-examination. It says that the judges, or shoftim, shall judge the people with righteous judgment (mishpat tzedek). But isn't this phrase redundant? Is not judgment or mishpat righteous by definition? The Sforno, a sixteenth century Italian Jewish commentator, answers this difficulty by interpreting the phrase to mean that the judge "must not be lenient with one and harsh toward the other." Righteous judgment is free from partiality and maintains the same standards toward all. Indeed, a balanced scale is the essence of justice, yet it is difficult to maintain. We all tend to favor the attractive, the loveable, the cooperative among us over the dumpy, grumpy, and difficult. Yeshua instructs us, however, to emulate God in his impartial kindness toward all: "But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . . Be perfect, therefore, even as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:44-45, 48).
Yeshua is not speaking of sinless perfection here, but of a perfect, complete, unconditional attitude of respect and kindness toward all. Just as righteous judgment is evenhanded toward all, so Yeshua commands evenhandedness in our treatment of others.
This week, I attended the funeral at our Messianic synagogue here in Albuquerque for a member who had died suddenly of a heart attack. Alan lived in his van on a meager income, but many friends came up during the service to testify of how deeply he had touched their lives and encouraged their faith in Yeshua. Because he was so well loved and respected, several people had offered him places to stay, but he always declined. "I'm OK in my van and I can reach the homeless for Yeshua better if I'm homeless myself." Alan was a treasure hidden in a beat-up old van that unrighteous judgment might cause us to miss.
So, here's a fourth question to ask ourselves during this season of spiritual preparation:
The haftarah for this week, Isaiah 51:12-52:12, looks forward to the day when those watching for God's return will cry out to Zion, "Your God is King!" In that day, God will restore justice to Israel and all humanity. In the meantime, our own practice of justice provides a foretaste and prepares the way for that promised hope. Whether during the High Holy Days or any other days, we cannot worship the coming King without practicing justice in our treatment of others. Doubtless, we will all find corrections to make before we announce the coming of the King at Rosh Hashanah just one month from now.