Justice, Justice

This week’s Parsha, Shoftim, begins with this famous declaration:

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof —

Justice, justice thou shalt pursue. Deuteronomy 16:20

This is one of the central declarations of the Torah, echoed in many other instructions. For example:

You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Decide justly between the Israelite and the stranger alike. Take no bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, shall you pursue. (Exodus 23:8)

The pursuit of justice has, from the beginning, been a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Perhaps our origin as slaves sensitized us to this principle. Over the millennia, a deeply thoughtful, detailed, and sensitive discussion emerged as generations of Jewish thinkers expanded and expounded upon the question of what it means to treat people justly and fairly.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. In true Jewish fashion, let’s take this phrase apart one word at a time, and see what insights emerge. We begin with the word “tzedek.” Hebrew is a language based on root words; out of the root, many words are created, all of which share a cluster of related meanings. “Tzedek” means “justice” or “righteousness,” that is, doing the right thing. One of its close relatives is “tzedakah,” usually translated in English as “charity.” Linguistically and conceptually, however, there is a critical distinction between the terms. “Charity” is derived from the Latin Caritas, which means “love” or “regard.” Charity is an act of love, of giving freely. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an act of justice, understood by Jews to be a duty. The intention of giving tzedakah is to help manifest a basic Jewish goal: to enable every person to live with dignity, because every person has been created in the image of God. If you can give out of love, all the better, says Jewish law; but you give first of all because it is the right thing to do.

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