I grew up at Temple Israel of Jamaica, Queens. The synagogue stood right at the entrance to The Grand Central Parkway and 188th St. You had to pass by its facade to get onto the highway. In enormous letters on the outside walls there was a quote from the prophet Micah, “Do Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with thy G-d.” These were the words that my Reform synagogue chose to represent Judaism to all who passed by. Reform Judaism has always emphasized the words of the prophets and the importance of social justice. In fact, the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were both drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism by Jewish, African-American, and other civil rights leaders.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, we read, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” This phrase has become a rallying cry for activists in our movement. The Torah uses the word “Tzedek” twice. Why? Perhaps it is to emphasize its importance as a concept. Maybe it is to encourage us to think of multiple meanings for the word – procedural, distributive, restorative, social, environmental, etc. Or maybe it means justice and only justice – teaching us that actively pursuing other things is less worthwhile. And what does it mean to pursue something? It means to actively chase after it. It is a much stronger word than Micah’s “do.”
From the word Tzedek – justice, we derive the word Tz’dakah (commonly translated as charity). The Jewish concept of charity is not that we are generously giving what is ours to others, but rather that we are justly restoring balance. Poor people should have a natural right (according to Torah) to the sustenance necessary for survival.
We also derive the word Tzadik – a righteous person from the word tzedek. According to a legend, there are thirty-six totally righteous people in each generation – unknown to themselves and to others – upon whom the continual existence of the world depends. We may not be among the thirty-six, but we should always strive toward that ideal.
Reading our newspapers tells us how desperately the world needs more people to actively pursue all kinds of justice. This week, I invite you to ponder what that could mean in your life. What can you do this week to actively chase after some justice for the world we share. And, in the words of Rabbi Hillel, “if not now, when?”
To learn more about the social justice work of the reform movement, check out the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: