The first paragraph of Shoftim begins, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates … ” and ends with one of the Torah’s most famous exhortations, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Who is responsible to keep this mitzvah? And how does the pursuit of justice follow?
Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot included the mitzvah “to appoint judges and officers in every community of Israel.” Later, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides stipulated, “Only in Eretz Yisrael are we required to set up courts of law in every district and every city.” He then described how this should be accomplished under the auspices of the Great Sanhedrin. In Maimonides’ lifetime, this description was purely aspirational, with Eretz Yisrael a constant battleground between Christendom and Islam. Could this be the reason he disregarded the Talmud’s position?
The Talmud had applied this mitzvah to Jewish communities worldwide. Makkot 7a held that “in your gates” means in “Eretz Yisrael you shall establish courts in each and every district and in each and every city, and outside Eretz Yisrael you establish courts in each and every district but you do not establish courts in each and every city.”
The Talmud further expanded this mitzvah to dimensions that exceed almost all other mitzvot. Sanhedrin 56a enumerated the seven mitzvot given to “the descendants of Noah,” i.e. “all of humanity.” The first mitzvah is to establish courts of justice (dinin) to oversee the other six mitzvot: prohibiting blasphemy, idolatry, sexual impropriety, bloodshed, robbery, and eating the limb of a living animal. Thereby, “Judges and officials shall you appoint in all your gates” is a mitzvah for the whole world to keep.
Judaism has never claimed there is only one religion. Judaism has always proclaimed that there is only one God. The seven Noahide commandments engender Judaism’s belief in the familyhood of humanity. The Torah asserted this principle from the beginning when God created all of us in God’s own image.
So how does the pursuit of justice follow? The answer should ring a bell.
The Liberty Bell was one of countless bells sounded on July 8, 1776, fulfilling its inscription, another stirring verse from Torah, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.” The pealing bells summoned citizens to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Among the 56 signatories of the Declaration, there was not one Jew. The signatories likely identified themselves as Christian Deists, well versed in the Bible. This was enough to suffuse the Declaration’s most famous phrase with the influence of Judaism: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Still, imagine if a Jew or two been included in the drafting. They might have made “a more perfect union,” to borrow from the preamble to the Constitution. Jews could have quoted the exact verse from Genesis, “God made man in God’s own image … male and female God created them,” then cited God’s relentless condemnation of slavery in Exodus. Imagine if the Declaration’s first phrase had been written, “All human beings are created equal.” It would have spared us centuries of all the “-isms” of hate and prejudice that stain America’s soul.
The Jewish influence on the Declaration may seem to ring loudest in “the pursuit of Happiness,” as it resonates with “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But therein runs the crack in the Liberty Bell.
How often is happiness pursued at another’s expense? Winners and losers. Victors and vanquished. Our success entails their failure. Life in pursuit of happiness becomes a zero-sum game.
Or how often is happiness confused with self-gratification? Yes, wholesome happiness exists, starting with loving relationships, tasks well done and life’s challenges met. Yet how often is the pursuit of happiness merely self-indulgence? Especially today when unhappiness is a national epidemic on top of the worldwide pandemic, where has “the pursuit of happiness” brought this country?
If a Jew or two had a hand in drafting the Declaration of Independence, they would know that Judaism supersedes and subsumes the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of justice. “Happiness cannot be pursued,” wrote Victor Frankel. “It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”
With the exhortation “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” Shoftim calls us to the greatest of causes administered by “Judges and Officials” worldwide. If a nation aspires to “liberty and justice for all,” then it must be guided by justice. Only the unstinting pursuit of justice ensures happiness for all.
With Elul here and the High Holy Days approaching, our nation is “a house divided against itself.” How shall it stand? Let us pledge ourselves to work toward “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We Jews, a light to the nations, thereby can make this nation a light to all nations. PJC
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.