Parshat Shoftim(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

Rabbi David Stav 

True to its name, our Torah portion, Shoftim, elaborates on the different court systems and government agencies the nation would need to establish once it enters the Land of Israel, as echoed in the verse: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities…” [Deut. 16:18].

A nation cannot survive without a proper judicial system. We recall that before the Torah was given, and shortly after the people had left Egypt, Moshe himself would sit in judgement of the nation from dawn to dusk [Ex. 18:13].

The central demand the Torah has for our judicial systems is that “…they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment” [Deut. 16:18]. There is no need to explain how crucial it is for a nation to have faith in its judges, so that the nation can continue living in the land. Without this faith in the justice system, society would descend into utter anarchy. Therefore, the Torah commands safeguards to protect the integrity of this system: not to take bribes and not to show favoritism – we are not to favor the rich over the poor, or vice-versa.

At this point, a rather unusual verse appears: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you” [ibid., v. 20]. It is written in a unique style: it is quite rare to find repeated words in the text, and besides, the word “pursue” seems somewhat out of place.

The Torah understandably commands us not to favor one of two sides in a hearing, and we also understand how to implement this principle. The same goes for not accepting bribes: this commandment, too, is one we can readily understand. But how do we pursue justice? What is it exactly that we must do? Who exactly is supposed to pursue justice?

Logic would have it that the requirement to pursue justice should be directed toward the very same people who are supposed to apply justice in the courts. Some of our Sages suggested that this verse is not directed toward the judges, but rather to the litigants, whom it beseeches to find the best court they can for their hearing. But this instruction is, by its very nature, difficult to implement.

It is safe to assume that each party will want to claim that this-or-that court is the best. Other commentators posited that this verse is asking the judges to understand that there are different types of justice. One type is the justice that follows the letter of the law, following a “let the chips fall as they may” approach. The other type involves compromise and judging leniently, mainly when a judge understands that a strict application of the law would cause unreasonable harm to the other side.

I would like to take a closer look at an Hasidic idea that proposes an entirely novel way of interpreting this verse. A Hasidic sage named Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa is quoted with the following cutting remark: “Pursuing justice? With justice, and not with lies”.

In other words, two people with opposing positions may be engaged in an argument, with each side maintaining that only they are correct. One side tries to raise various claims to bolster his or her argument, though the other side, like the judges and the general public, is unmoved by these allegations, until the first side presents conclusive evidence to support their case, and wins.

There is only one problem, though. The evidence itself is fabricated. It is not based on any factual truth, yet it manages to sway the judges or others hearing the case in one party’s favor, ultimately tipping the scales. The Torah tells us that we must pursue justice using justice, not falsehoods, and even if our intentions are good, that could never justify using false evidence.

Rabbi Bunim also said that there are many commandments and prohibitions in the Torah, but the Torah never uses terms like “pursuit” or “distancing” in those cases. We are forbidden from eating non-Kosher food, but we aren’t commanded to distance ourselves from it. We may not lie, but the Torah doesn’t stop there – it tells us to “distance ourselves from falsehood”. Yet the Torah commands us to do all kinds of things, like respecting our parents, observing the Sabbath, and so on, but we aren’t commanded to “pursue” them.

When meting out justice, however, we are commanded to “pursue” it, as if to say that whatever we do, the truth should be our guiding light. We must never resort to using falsehood to achieve our goals, no matter how righteous those goals may be.

It is indeed rather tempting to make claims we know to be far removed from the truth in rabbinical or political discourse, but these types of statements garner support within certain communities. And despite the fact that they are nothing but utter falsehoods, people think that the holy and righteous end they are trying to achieve justifies the false and wayward means they use.

Thus the Torah cautions us to pursue justice – through justice, not through falsehoods. Hassidic literature tells us that the command to judge and use every precaution required of judges is not directed only at the judicial stem, which operates on behalf of the state.

Each of us is a judge. We all judge our families, society around us, and most of all, ourselves. Particularly during this time of the year, as we prepare to begin the month of Elul, the month of Selichot and mercy, we should keep in mind that we are all supposed to judge what goes out of our mouths, as well as what goes into them. This will help us understand the value of pursuing justice through justice. It will keep us true to ourselves, ensuring that we know that whatever we say or do must be said or done honestly and truthfully. “Justice, justice, shall you pursue”.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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