In this week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim, we find one of the favorite passages in Reform Judaism, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” (Deut. 16:20), which translates to “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” The Hebrew word “tzedek” contains the same root as “tzedakah.” In one way, this passage is a reminder that tzedakah does not simply mean charity. Charity, in its classical understanding, is something we do because it feels good to do it. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an obligation. It is something we are supposed to do, whether we want to or not. And not only that, doing tzedakah helps to bring about more justice in the world. This is why we place so much emphasis on doing acts of tzedakah.
All that being said, while in Washington, D.C. this past week, I attended a seminar at the Religious Action Center prior to the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium. One of our presenters made mention that though we often reference tzedek, tzedek tirdof, he asked, how many of us know the rest of the verse.
This was an excellent question. For the rest of the verse states, “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.” This was all part of a larger conversation dealing with the notion that the Land of Israel is not a God given right, but instead is something that needs to be constantly earned through righteous deeds. And not only that, but classical Deuteronomical theology is thereby stating that if the Israelites failed to keep the mitzvot and pursue justice, God would take the land away from them.
This is how it played in history and how it was also defined by the prophets when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. It was the same narrative for the rabbis when Israel was conquered a second time by the Romans in 70 C.E.
Of course further study of history, geo-politics, world events, and the like can present contradictory evidence to this type of theology. Bad things, destruction, and the like simply do not happen because of a failure of pursuit of justice. The world is not so simple. That being said, inequality, suffering, hopelessness, and despair are often a direct result of failures to pursue justice.
As a Jewish community, we are reminded of the centrality that tzedek and tzedakah play in our tradition. Though we may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, nonetheless, our actions do have the potential for positive impact in our lives and in our communities. So on this Shabbat, where we will celebrate the leaders of our congregation, was ask God’s guidance in helping their visions and decisions to be just and righteous. For as a Sacred Community, we should always strive to remember that the pursuit of justice is what creates holiness. We are not holy because God declared us so. We are only holy if we act more like God.
And if we do so, we may continue to thrive and be a blessing. So go forth and perform acts of tzedek and tzedakah.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff