Torah from around the world #179

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by Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth El,  Berkeley, CA, USA; Founding Rabbi, Congregation Bet Orim, Budapest, Hungary

Like many Yiddish words that are part and parcel of the vocabulary of American Jews, “bashert” is hard to translate. Most often “bashert” and “basherte,” are used to describe one’s soulmate, though we learn from the dictionary written by the great Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich, that “bashert” is an adjective meaning inevitable, or (pre)destined. I can say with all certainty that this week’s Torah portion “Shoftim” was bashert to become an integral and significant part of my personal and professional life.

My first profound connection to this Biblical selection was many years ago on the occasion of my clandestine Bar Mitzvah in communist totalitarian Hungary. Then again, eight years ago, while serving as the senior rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, the dedication of its new sanctuary and educational campus complex took place on Shabbat Shoftim. An interesting coincidence worth mentioning is that both events had been originally planned for a different Shabbat, but were changed. Since my designated Bar Mitzvah Shabbat corresponded to the first Yahrzeit of my beloved great-grandmother, the family matriarch and my grandparents’ rabbi suggested that it would be more appropriate to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah earlier. As far as Beth El’s dedication ceremony, the date had to be postponed as the building project was not completed on time. In both instances, the new date turned out to be Shabbat Shoftim.

Thus, it is indeed my destiny to be closely connected with Shoftim. I vividly remember that from the very beginning of my preparation for the Bar Mitzvah, I fell in love with the Torah reading. In a middle class resort area of Budapest, ironically in the section of town called Freedom Mountain, the remnants of the Jewish community gathered for an underground Shabbat service to celebrate with me, one of the very few Jewish boys who survived the Holocaust. I began to chant loudly “Shoftim v’shotrim titen l’cha… You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). When I got to the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” I chanted them even louder.

Due justice refers to judicial propriety, which according to our text must be governed by three fundamental principles: fairness, impartiality and incorruptibility. Shoftim’s brief introductory paragraph reaches its climax in verse 20, when the Torah declares: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’maan tichye… Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may thrive…” In his commentary, Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay points out that in our passage, the verbs are singular, nevertheless the rules are addressed to the entire people, unlike in Deuteronomy 1:16-17, “where the obligation to judge fairly is addressed only to the Judges.” It is the responsibility of every individual to live by these laws. Taking the context under consideration the Hebrew phrase “titen l’cha” is correctly translated as “you shall appoint for your tribes”, but literally the Torah says “you shall appoint for yourself.” This could be interpreted that you must first judge yourself before you judge others.

Justice, justice shall you pursue… The homiletic rabbinic commentary Devarim Rabbah states that in God’s eyes practicing justice is much more important than offering sacrifices. As proof text, the Book of Proverbs is quoted: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to God than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

An often-debated question is why the word justice is written twice? Would it not be enough to mention it once? The rational explanation offered by grammarians is that the repetition is a Hebraism to emphasize the word and the duplication means: justice alone, justice and only justice.

For the early Hassidic thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, the repetition consisted of a moral lesson. Perhaps it was a protest against the adage so popular all over Europe that stated: “the end justifies the means.” Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Przysucha (1765-1827) explains the verse this way: “You shall pursue only just justice”, which means the end goal of justice is of zero value if it is not achieved through just means. Similarly his colleague, Menachem Mendel (1787-1859), the Klotzker Rebbe taught: “Be careful when you pursue a holy matter. For sometimes in running after an important mitzvah you can destroy the world getting there.”

Jewish philosophy distinguishes between heavenly justice, “emet” and earthly justice, “tzedek.” In our prayers that follow the “Sh’ma”, we add the Hebrew word “emet” after the divine declaration: “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am Adonai your God.”

“Tzedek”, on the other hand, is what we human beings must pursue with all our might. In biblical Hebrew the noun “tzedek” appears in a parallel feminine form “tz’dakah” as well. In the writings of the prophets the two are practically indistinguishable. Professor Arthur Green keenly observed that in later Hebrew usage “tz’dakah comes to be associated with a virtue of righteous generosity, a way of improving the world’s balance specifically giving to those who have too little.”

Personally, I would like to add a new interpretation for the repetition of the word “tzedek.” Perhaps the first “tzedek” encourages us to fight for our own individual rights and stand up against those who try to interfere with our God given freedom. The second “tzedek” reminds us of our responsibilities towards others.

High among the values of the World Union for Progressive Judaism is “tzedek.” As Founding Rabbi of Congregation Bet Orim of Budapest, Hungary, I can testify that the WUPJ is doing its utmost to fiercely combat anti-Semitism in Hungary and to strongly demand that the Hungarian government grant full recognition to Reform Judaism. Tzedek… together with my Budapest congregation we are fighting for our rights as Jews; tzedek… we are standing up for the rights of others whose freedom is denied.

It is my hope and fervent prayer that soon justice will prevail.

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