Parashat Shoftim Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
The name of this week's parashah (Torah portion) is "Shoftim" which is Hebrew for "judges." The parashah opens with instructions and guidelines to those appointed as judges; issues like how many witnesses are required to secure a conviction, standards of judgment, recourse if a case should prove too difficult, and more.
Included in this passage is one verse that has taken on a life of its own for its power and inspirational vision:
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
"Justice, justice shall you pursue--in order that you will live and inherit the land which Adonay your God gives to you."
Most certainly the "p'shat," the surface meaning of this verse is majestic and uplifting. When read with the consciousness of the Divine Source of our Torah, we try to develop an eye for deeper layers of meaning. Over the millenia, rabbinic commentators have come to consensus on a number of methodologies for revealing these near-infinite layers of meaning.
One of these methods involves looking for unusual wording or apparently superfluous words in a verse. Take our verse, for instance. Would our understand of God's expectation of us to pursue justice be substantially altered if the verse read: "Justice shall you pursue. . ." instead of "Justice, justice shall you pursue . . ."?
Perhaps not. At which moment rabbinic ears perk up! Here's a marker designating a place to dig for deeper meaning! We've got the same word repeated for no apparent reason! Why?
We should be undaunting and thorough in our pursuit of justice.
We should make sure that justice is not reserved for one sector of society.
We should make sure that the pursuit of justice takes place on every level of human endeavor and by every one.
And, perhaps, the repetition of the word "justice" is meant to draw our attention to that word. So let's take a look:
צֶדֶק / tzedek
In Hebrew, words are formed around a three-letter root. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, plurals and etymologically and conceptually related words are formed through the manipulation of vowels and the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Other Hebrew words formed around this same three-letter root include:
צָדִיק / tzadik = a righteous person
צְדָקָה / tz'dakah = charity
I would suggest that the repetition of the word צֶדֶק / tzedek in our verse comes to direct us to the other words based on the same root. We are to understand that the pursuit of justice is a vision to be internalized by any person who strives to live righteously, to live by eternally uplifting, divine values.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.