Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, these are the words at the beginning of our Torah portion this week, Shoftim. There are more than a few opinions on how to translate those words, but the core meaning is: justice is very important, and as a Jew, you ought to pursue it. The bookend to this parasha are the laws concerning vengeance—the short-term, emotion-filled side of finding wholeness. On the one hand we begin with the dispassionate value of justice for all and on the other hand we end with the fiery emotion to mete vengeance on those who have done wrong—two sides of what makes a society fair. On the side of vengeance is the feeling that there must be punishment against the wicked, and on the side of justice: wholeness for the afflicted.
My favorite medieval Jewish commentator, Avraham Ibn Ezra, says that the meaning of the command to seek justice is to pursue it whether it will end up good or bad for you. Today, we might call Ibn Ezra’s definition for justice the same as the definition for altruism: to do the right thing without care or concern for any benefit or loss that might come our way. If we continue down this path, justice is selfless. We’re prioritizing those who have been wronged rather than simply punishing the evildoer.
Justice extends far beyond punishment for the offender. Justice is the assurance that the scales of the universe will return to balance—not as a sentence against the offender, but as restoration for the victim.
In the month of Elul we prepare for the High Holy Days by making amends with those we may have wronged. We ought to do this work regardless of how it might better us or leave us worse off. T’shuvah, making amends, and tzedek, justice, are synonyms for the same idea: that the world needs to be righted, and the power to do so is within our grasp.
As we approach the Days of Awe, may we seek justice with the same urgency as our Torah commands, and may this justice bring wholeness and peace to all who are in need.