Our Torah portion, Shoftim, opens with the institution of judges and scribes, whose job is to administer justice over the people of Israel. The text carries on, “you shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice you shall follow…” (Dt. 16: 19-20).
What a great set of laws! We can all agree they are the foundation of a healthy and just judicial system. And as we can see, there is nothing new under the sun, and these are still so very relevant today.
There are truths we wish did not exist, and realities we would rather ignore.
I was surprised to see that our Liberal Judaism lectionary does not include these verses as possible readings for this Shabbat. I can only guess that it is because the following verses order death penalty by stoning for those who are guilty of idolatry. Violence in Torah makes us feel very uncomfortable, and we wish it didn’t exist. And yet, there is violence in the Bible, because their society was probably more violent than ours. There was violence against foreigners, against women, against minorities, and the whole purpose of Torah is to regulate and contain it. It says, for example, “the hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of the people” (Dt. 17: 7). There is no better way to call into action peoples’ responsibilities. It is not because we turn a blind eye to it that it doesn’t exist. On the contrary, we need to face reality, however distasteful it may be. Honesty is the only way to correct our actions.
We need to keep a check on violence in society, within our families, or against ourselves. Violence, like pain, is the sign that something is not quite right and needs to be looked into. Strong emotions are not to be avoided. They signal something that requires our attention.
As a society, we have experienced a whole new set of emotions in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown. We have felt uncertainty, anxiety, fear for the future, but also a refocusing on our core priorities and values.
That is the reason why we should never attempt to avoid any troubling texts from our tradition. We may not like them, as they sometime contradict our values, but there is a lesson to draw precisely in our response to it. And in that case, Torah gives us one of its most profound verses: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. The repetition reinforces here tzedek, justice, as one of the pillars upon which a healthy society must be built.
You can watch Rabbi René deliver the message here: