Summary of the portion
The Israelites are directed by Moses to set up a system for Justice to be available, with tribal judges appointed who would dispense justice in a fair and impartial way. Then Moses turned his attention to a number of wrong practises – warning against setting up a pillar for idolatrous purposes, sacrificing an animal with a serious defect and so on. Then he goes on to describe what to do if an Israelite was suspected of foreign or idolatrous worship – there must be an enquiry with at least two witnesses brought forward, and if found guilty the person would be stoned to death, and the witnesses should be part of the process of stoning.
If a case between two people was too difficult to decide, then it would be referred to the priests and to the judges of that time, whose decision would be final and whose sentence must be carried out – not to do so was for the litigants themselves to receive the death penalty.
Once in the land, the Israelites could choose a King for themselves, but this king must be Israelite and must live a modest lifestyle without a surfeit of horses, women or wealth. The priests were to write a book of Torah for the king who should read it often in order to remember God and keep God’s laws and not become arrogant.
Other rules appear almost randomly in the portion – the Levites were to have no land, but live only from the offerings to God given to them as they performed the Temple service. They had rights to certain portions of the sacrificial items; Once in the land, there were to be three cities of refuge created so that anyone who accidentally committed manslaughter could have a protected place to go to. Someone who deliberately murdered another however would be given back to the courts; people were not to move landmarks from previous generations. Guilt in a court of law could only be at the word of two or more witnesses; Rules for war include not cutting down fruit trees in a siege; and finally the ritual of the eglah arufah – the rules for when a corpse is found outside any city and with no clear evidence of who killed the person – how to purify the land and surrounding towns with the ashes of a heifer so that the blood guilt was removed...
There is so much in this sidra but the overwhelming impulse is to pursue justice – Tzedek. And one phrase stands out for me – “you shall come to the priests and to the Judge that shall be at that time and you shall enquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgement....According to the law which they will teach you, and according to the judgement which they will tell you, you shall do and you shall not turn aside from the sentence which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:9-11)
This verse becomes the mandate for Rabbinic Judaism – and one might even say for the evolving and progressing Judaism of which our synagogue is a part. The law is decided not for all time, but by the judge who lives at that time; Torah it is not to be fossilised or protected from modernity or the zeitgeist – it is part of the same process that people are, learning as we add to knowledge, changing as we find new ways to express ourselves. Indeed, so powerful is this text that Rashi (11th Century) builds on the phrase about not deviating from the decision making of the contemporaneous judge either to the right or the left, to bolster the power of the rabbis by saying “even if they declare the left is right and right is left, you follow their judgment”, basing himself on a much earlier midrash [Sifre (2nd Century)].
The requirement to pursue Justice – “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” – and the importance of Torah being mediated through modern understandings of the world, is an extraordinarily powerful combination. Our understanding of what Justice means has grown and changed as we see how the world is connected and as we appreciate the shared humanity of all peoples and realise that our responsibilities continue outside our own immediate circle and networks, to all human beings. We have both the principles of k’vod haBrit - Respect for different Jewish points of views and for different levels of Jewish knowledge and activity, and k’vod haBriyot - Respect for all that is created. Both in the Particular world of Jews and in the Universal world of creation, the idea of honouring God through the action of Tzedek – right behaviour – is part of Jewish teaching.
How do we honour both brit and briyot? Both the Jewish world and the larger world in which we live? We do so with the pursuit of justice, and we understand that justice must be brought about and administered in both the worlds in which we live. We can no longer view the world through the eyes of cloistered community; we have a modern understanding and appreciation of how completely we are part of the wider community. How we behave as Jews, be it individually, as a community, or indeed as Israel, must be shaped and filtered through both the imperative to justice and the understanding of modernity. We must read our texts mediated not only through the commentators of old, but also with the eyes of our own contemporaries.
The Midrash Tanhuma proclaims that "every judge who adjudicates according to the quintessential truth is regarded by Scripture as though they were a partner with God in creation." So searching out and supporting Justice brings us as close to the divine as we can get.
The famous phrase ‘Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” “Justice Justice you shall pursue” continues “so that you will live, and inherit the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you (Deut. 16:20) and this is telling. Justice is the thing that brings us as close to God as we can be, the Land of Israel is seen in tradition as being a land which has the eye of God upon it. If Justice is not done in Israel, we will not deserve to live within it – indeed Jacob ben Asher [writing in the halachic code the Tur (c 13th century)], comments on the Talmudic statement that “The only reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because the sages based their decisions on the strict requirements of the law, without going beyond it”( Baba Metzia 30b) by extending it and saying “The only reason that Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel was exiled was because they abolished justice”.
To simply apply law mechanically and strictly, without thought of context or complexity, is, in the eyes of the Tur, to abolish Justice.
As we look around in our worlds, shaken by uprisings and riots, by demands and terror, let us take a deep breath and remember that mechanistic responses – even if written in our holy texts – may not be the answer, and we have also to apply the human responses of our own time.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 2011