The laws for Cities of Refuge are established in this week's Torah portion. (Illustration from "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster, 1897)
The laws for Cities of Refuge are established in this week's Torah portion. (Illustration from "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster, 1897)

‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ — not as easy as it sounds

Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Isaiah 51:12-52:12

When I was growing up, I always had a strong yearning to be a judge. Perhaps it’s because I got hooked watching “L.A. Law” with my parents. I thought it was so cool when one of the attorneys would raise an objection, as I waited with bated breath to hear whether the objection would be sustained or overruled, only to turn to my father, a practicing attorney, to try to better understand why the judge had ruled the way he or she did.

As I grew older, I decided to abandon the whole judge thing. I felt like it was too much pressure having the balance of someone’s fate solely in my hands.

That’s why I chose the rabbinate … far less stress and pressure, right?

The opening of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, describes the biblical creation of a judicial system, an ancient means of our modern day “due process clause” in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Torah reads, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice (mishpat tzedek). You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue (tzedek tzedek tirdof) that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:18-20).

It seems simple and straightforward. Yet anyone living in today’s world knows that it often feels near impossible.

The 16th century Polish commentator Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz, known as the Kli Yakar (the Precious Vessel), offers a profound insight about the phrase mishpat tzedek (due justice), or more accurately, “justice righteousness.”

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim astutely highlights that the goal of the judicial system is not only to insure that people are judged fairly. More importantly, there is a hope and expectation that, as a consequence of the judgment handed down, a person will change their ways and begin living a life of righteousness.

The Kli Yakar goes further: It starts with each and every one of us. Before we can go out and judge others, we must first start with ourselves. This, for Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim, is the confluence of mishpat and tzedek, the unification of justice with righteousness.

I find that this theme of judgment is quite fitting as we begin the final weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaDin, the day when we all stand before one another and before God, the true judge. One of the greatest challenges of judgment is remaining impartial, to see and hear all sides of a case before ruling, to put stereotypes and prejudices aside, and to always give a person the benefit of the doubt. In a way, the High Holy Day season reminds us that we are all judges not only of others, but first and foremost, of ourselves.

There is a need, now more than ever, for each of us — individually, as a Jewish community, as people living in the United States and as a global society — to take a hard, long look at our actions. We must hold ourselves to the highest moral and ethical standards, fighting to build a world of justice and equality for all people created in God’s image independent of race, religion, sexuality or gender.

And in moments where we see injustice staring us in the face, where Mishpat Tzedek, Justice and Righteousness, are being abused and forsaken, we must have the courage to stand up and speak out in pursuit of the ultimate tzedek.

As we enter the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, may we remember to treat others fairly, to be impartial and to judge others how we ourselves want to be judged.

And more importantly, may we all strive to live this model of due justice, Mishpat Tzedek — Justice and Righteousness — creating a space for both to exist in our lives, in our interactions with others and with God. And through our efforts, may we all be blessed to be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.