Humility and Justice (Shoftim)

By Reb David

No surprise, among this judicial officer‘s favorite Torah portions is this week’s Shoftim (“judges”). On its surface, it’s about creating a system of government, balancing powers and applying law. Just beneath, however, it focuses on a different subject most timely for our current month of Elul, the time of teshuvah (return) leading to Rosh Hashanah. Scale_of_justice

Shoftim includes one of Torah’s most famous lines (and, to a Jewish judge, the most pivotal): צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ (tzedek, tzedek tirdof) / “Justice, justice you must pursue, so you will live” (Deut. 16:20). While early tradition read this phrase as a call to honor court decisions (so we don’t take the law into our own hands), later generations read it philosophically, sensing in its repeat of the word צֶ֖דֶק (justice) two separate levels of justice – one human commended to our hands, another divine beyond human grasp. In that spirit, Torah calls us to “pursue” (in some translations, “chase”) justice knowing that we can’t ever attain it: justice based on full understanding simply isn’t completely within our reach on the human plane. Instead, we must open ourselves to not fully knowing, to the Mystery of a power beyond ourselves.

We don’t take law into our own hands; we chase justice knowing that justice isn’t fully attainable by our own effort; we open ourselves to not knowing and a Power beyond ourselves. Note the common thread: all of these imply modesty and self-restraint. What this Torah portion implies about us, it says explicitly about public officials in power: a ruler must not be excessively wealthy (Deut. 17:16-17) lest he wrongly “lift his heart over his brethren” (Deut. 17:20). A ruler too high above the people cannot be modest and self-restrained, and therefore cannot lead. Spiritually, we learn that nobody can lead except from humility: even Moses – precisely Moses, the great Biblical leader – was the most humble of people (Num. 12:3).

It makes sense that Torah would couple authority with humility. After all, authority without humility is dangerous, while humility without authority is useless. It’s no accident that most U.S. courtrooms prominently display the words IN GOD WE TRUST behind the judge’s bench.

Lest we imagine that balancing action and humility is just for judges and politicians, today each of us stands in the shoes of the Biblical judges and kings. Every day, each of us makes judgments; we issue decrees; we act and defend; we create and destroy. In all we do, in all we think we know about acting justly in the world, this week’s portion reminds us to be humble and not be too sure. Torah reminds us not to assume we know, not to lift our hearts too high, and always to honor the Mystery beyond and within.

These reminders come at an awesome time. The month of Elul, runway to Rosh Hashanah, is precisely when we turn our most discerning eye to ourselves, our judgments and our actions. For each time we acted the inner judge, each time we leveled a monarchic decree with false certitude, these days call us into clear and discerning vision about ourselves. Clear seeing requires courage; even more, it requires humility. Without humility, there can be no true self-reflection, no seeking forgiveness, no giving forgiveness. Without humility, there can be no teshuvah (return) and no justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof! With the clear vision that only humility allows, let us each pursue justice and righteousness in our lives, for then we will have lives truly worth living. Shanah tovah.

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