Congregation Emeth’s Year of Living Jewishly –
Mitzvah of the Week*: Tzedek Tirdof – Pursue Justice
“You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eys of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue… (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)
This chapter of Torah is actually addressed to the judges who will be appointed, limiting their power. But the instruction to pursue justice, is not limited to judges – this is an essential obligation for each of us.
The Talmud expanded on our obligation to distribute justice equally by stating: “Whoever can stop one’s household [from doing something wrong] but does not, is punished for [the wrongdoing of] one’s household; if one can prevent fellow citizens, but does not, that one is punished for the sins of the fellow citizens; if the whole world, one is punished for the sins of the whole world.”
The Talmud is claiming that our obligations don’t stop at our door, or even one’s community, but rather we are obligated to pursue justice throughout the whole world. It is teaching that we are responsible for the actions of those we know well and those whom we don’t know personally, wherever they might live. What a huge responsibility is placed on our shoulders!
Of course, I selected this mitzvah because of issues raised by the recent events that question the equality of justice in our country. John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, wrote, “What we are witnessing is a reflection of a systematic failure in our society that is revealed wherever we are willing to look — schools, health care, employment, housing, life expectancy, poverty, and the list goes on. The problem is persistent, cumulative, and deeply debilitating.”
Regardless of your point of view about Eric Garner, Michael Brown, the grand jury failures to indict, the resulting protests (and the list goes on), I am going to call on each of us to do something very different from previous Mitzvot of the Week. This week, search your own heart for your areas of prejudice, racism, closed ears, and defensiveness. To end bigotry, we must start with an honest assessment of our own, sometimes hidden, attitudes. Before we can change society, we must change ourselves. Take a few moments, maybe right now, and honestly search your heart. What do you expect when you encounter “others” in our society? When you hear the news, who do you expect is at fault, before hearing the story or all the facts? Do you rush to judgment, to form an opinion? Do you assume you know all of the facts, or than some of the facts are sufficient? We all have prejudices. Can you honestly discover your own?
Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man (sic) changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
Rabbi Debbie Israel