Parashah Shoftim continues Moses’s speech delineating various legal teachings for Israel. It tries to promote justice from within the community. Every member of the community is entitled to the same justice and deserve a fair government. Failure to heed G-d’s commandments will endanger Israel’s future. Justice also apply to the rules of war.
In Shoftim, “justice” is not a single word because it is not a single concept. The double word is its own congruency. That’s the alignment to strive for: justice that is righteous, and righteousness that is just—that is rooted in kindness, caring, and giving. The pursuit of justice has, from the beginning, been a fundamental tenet of Judaism. The term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of the officials and the courts but also of everyone. It also compels one to compromise. In nineteenth-century Poland, Reb Yaakov Yitchak of P’shischa interpreted the word’s repetition that the end does not justify the means: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of the worthy cause.”
The end of Parashah Shoftim has a very interesting law. If a person is found dead in the fields outside a city, and no one knows who is responsible, the leaders of the nearest city must come out and proclaim their innocence and kill a young calf as atonement.
Here’s the logic: If a person can die alone and neglected, in an empty field, the people of the city are responsible in some way. They ask themselves: how can this happen near our town, and what can we do to avoid something like this happening again? This ritual that the leaders of the city must do demonstrates the value of each life. If someone is lacking something, in their material needs, or for that matter in their spiritual needs, it is our obligation as a fellow Jew to be there for that person.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land. With those words, Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the core of what it means to be a Jew. The expression goes, “kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,” all Jews are responsible one for another.
This leads to some of WRJ social justice activities, which includes strengthening Jewish practice and family life, advocating economic justice, and advocating for the most vulnerable to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty.
We have led the way in our support of civil rights and racial equality, LGBTQ equality, the rights of people with disabilities, public education, immigration reform, genocide, gun violence prevention, employment rights, right of individuals, apprehension and prosecution of war criminals, criminal justice, and many more. WRJ celebrates the values of religious freedom that have allowed the Jewish community to thrive. WRJ takes pride in its history of advocacy for women’s equality in the rabbinate, in the workplace, and in our society, raising voices for women’s suffrage and reproductive rights and taking a stand to end violence against women.
Joanne B. Fried is a WRJ Board Lifetime Member and a member of Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA.