So many of us are familiar with the magnificent phrase early in this week’s Torah portion, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20
Yet, many are unfamiliar with the phrase which follows that opening declaration. The verse continues, “Justice, justice shall you pursue… that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”
In our portion (Parashat Shotim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), we read laws pertaining to the administration of civil and criminal law. Our outstanding verse is often used by clergy to preach for justice, civil rights, decency, and righteousness. Yet, the Torah was not directing us towards such global concepts; it was concerned with a very specific matter, namely, the conduct of judicial appointees.
Judges were commanded to adjudicate properly. Why? Not to attain the lofty concepts of justice or righteousness, but “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the eternal your God is giving you.” Rashi, our 12th century Torah commentator instructed in his commentary to this verse, “The appointment of honorable judges is sufficient to keep Israel alive and to settle them upon their land.”
Fundamentally, the manner in which disputes in our community are settled characterizes our essential nature. When judges are biased – whether towards the rich or towards the poor, towards their neighbor or towards another – the integrity and trust of the community is undermined. We only thrive in our land when we feel that we are treated impartially and respectfully, and that one has recourse to a just court when a dispute arises.
Hence, as much as this powerful verse stirs each of us, and has become a foundational ethic of Jewish life, it has a special charge for those selected to arbitrate the law. Imagine a world with partial judges and biased courts! Justice, justice shall you pursue!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn