This Shabbat we find ourselves midway through the Book of Deuteronomy. Parashat Shoftim begins with the command to appoint judges and magistrates in the newly settled land and continues with one of the great passages of Torah: Justice, Justice shall you pursue.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof -The actual doubling of the word ‘justice’ indicates just how much importance the Torah assigns to the concept while the choice of the verb highlights how difficult it will be to actually embody and execute the concept in practice.
Justice is fluid, slippery and elusive. It is a goal to pursue, not a final state to achieve.
Justice is also complicated because the opposite of justice is not necessarily injustice – the valuative opposite in many cases is the quality of mercy. For judges to judge fairly they must balance the demands of both.
The Rabbis explain the two primary names of God – Adonai and Elohim – indicate that in some cases God reigns from the Throne of Mercy and at other times from the Throne of Judgment. As we approach Rosh Hashanah and the world awaits the annual exercise of God’s judgment, we implore the Creator to acknowledge both attributes in the rendering of the divine verdict.
There is also a Midrash that tells us that our world was not the first. In God’s first creation the world was constituted solely on the basis of Justice. Everyone got exactly what he or she deserved. Life was unremittingly fair. But that world quickly fell apart, and creation could not be sustained. So God tried again with an exclusive exercise of mercy. Now, no one was held accountable. People were simply understood and forgiven their misdeeds. And that world too could not be sustained. So God combined the qualities of justice and mercy and that world – our world – has been sustained for lo these 5780 years.
As we approach the New Year and undertake our annual cheshbon hanefesh - the traditional assessment of our days and deeds – we are asked to judge how well we have managed the gift of life entrusted to us. To do that fairly, we, too, must juggle truth, responsibility, accountability, understanding, mercy and forgiveness because – to be fair - in the cruel light of harsh justice none can stand. For any human life to be sustained, justice and mercy must embrace.
At this season, we sit alongside the Holy One in judgment of the life we lead. Then, after rendering a fair and honest verdict, God encourages us to soldier on. To do better. To right the heart’s old wrongs. To make of this world a blessing.