Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, Isaiah 51:12-52:12
This year, I was fortunate to spend my eighth summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem studying with about 170 colleagues from literally around the world. Our topic this summer was Tzedek u’mishpat (righteousness and justice). With a score of amazing scholars we looked at these concepts, what they mean and how they have been applied throughout the ages as reflected both in traditional and not-so-traditional texts.
Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is concerned with tzedek u’mishpat. It opens by demanding that we appoint shoftim, judges (hence the Hebrew name of this week’s parasha). Shortly after the beginning of the Torah portion, we find a very well-known phrase from the Torah: tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice, shall you pursue; really, righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue). I always understood this verse to mean that justice was not something that came automatically, nor would it even necessarily be attainable. One thing I learned this summer, from the president of the Hartman Institute, Donniel Hartman, is that the process of pursuing tzedek never stops. What especially struck me about what he taught was that tzedek and mishpat create demands on us. They require us to shift our behavior.
One of my favorite instructors at Hartman is Micah Goodman. He used our text for this Shabbat from Deuteronomy, in part, to show that the Torah limited a king’s power. Building on what Hartman taught, we as the people of Israel could have a king, as long as we understood that for our king to be one who practiced tzedek u mishpah, our king could not be like the kings of the other nations around Israel. Our king’s power had to be limited. According to our parasha, a king could not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to acquire more horses. Nor could a king have many wives or too much money. As Goodman pointed out when a king did so, he lost his power. But what I love so much about this text is that the king was required to write a copy of the Torah before the Levitical priests, and he was to read it every day all his life “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah, as well as, these laws. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”
How I wish that our leaders, both secular and religious, would keep a copy of the law and read it regularly! In fact, I would argue all of us need to review the laws of Torah, of our community, of our workplace or school on a regular basis.
There are so many things done supposedly in the name of the law, without recognizing or remembering what the law is. Tragically, some of the best examples of this happened this past summer in Israel with the attack on the Gay Rights Parade and the eventual death of Shira Banki, plus the wounding of five others and the fire-bombing of the Arab house in Kfar Duma resulting in the death of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his father, and the serious injuring of this child’s family.
Those responsible for these reprehensible crimes seem to have ignored one of the major Torah laws that clearly states, “You shall not murder.”
Sadly, there are many other situations from the workplace to our local governments to Washington, D.C, where people quote what they think is the law or act in a way that does not fit the law, because they really do not know the law.
We need to keep pursuing the right thing and keep working at justice. This means we need to reread, restudy, relearn our laws, whatever they may be.
Rabbi Sara Rae Perman is rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. This column is a service
of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.