For this week’s reading, we open to the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in Hebrew: Devarim. Moses begins his final address to the next generation and addresses a subject of profound importance: justice.
“I instructed your judges at that time as follows: “Listen to your fellow men, and decide justly [tzedek] between each man and his brother or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment. Listen to great and small alike. Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God. Any matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me and I will hear it.”
As we make our way through this book of the Torah over the next few weeks, we will find that Tzedek, “justice”, is a key word. A bit later we read:
Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)
So what does the Hebrew word, Tzedek, really mean?
It is very difficult, nay impossible, to translate with one word because it has many shades of meaning. The word can be translated as justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. Clearly, it has a much broader range than the Hebrew word for strict legal justice, mishpat. For example, we will read later in Deut. 24: 12-13:
If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sun-down, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God. (Deut. 24:12-13)
You can readily see that tzedakah does not here refer to legal justice. Rather it is speaking of the godly way to interact with a poor person who had nothing but his coat to offer as security for a loan. The lender could hold on to the coat til the loan is paid but that would be a harsh “justice”, cold and uncaring about the person. It is simply not the right thing to do. Compassion and kindness towards our fellow man takes priority. In fact, this same issue was already addressed in Exodus:
If you take your neighbour’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-26)
In situations like these, the word tzedakah, a form of tzedek, is rendered as compassion or charity; or simply stated, the right and honorable thing to do.
In Judaism, justice (Tzedek) must be balanced with compassion. According to Jewish thinking, Justice in this sense is always accompanied by mercy or grace. In Hebrew these two words – justice and mercy are not opposites. Actually the very word, tzedek, expresses the balance between the stricter sense of mishpat and the loving kindness reflective of the nature of God.
Why then does Moses begin his discourse with this topic of Tzedek, justice? Because a right understanding of the true meaning of tzedek is critical to the behavior God expects from His people. Tzedek is impartial; it makes no distinction between rich and poor, Jew or non-Jew, powerful or powerless. The Torah upholds equality before the law as a reflection of our equality before God Himself. We are urged more than once in the Torah to recognize that justice must not be arbitrary or exercised by human whim: “Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God.” Because it belongs to God, it must never be compromised – by fear, bribery, or favoritism. It is an inalienable right.
At Sinai, God gave to His people a religion of love: You shall love the Lord your God; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; you shall love the stranger.
But it is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts and don’t we see plenty of evidence of that in our world today? Those would not bend the rules to favor themselves or those they love or want to support have no place in Torah thinking.
On Sinai we were also given a religion of compassion, for without compassion the rule of law degenerates into inequity and even tyranny.
Justice plus compassion equals tzedek. No nation will thrive successfully when this principle is ignored, overlooked or denigrated. Neither will any family.
In Tune with Torah this week = Parents, is your discipline with your children just to the offense and is it administered with grace, with compassion? Friends, when you see someone doing wrong, is your first instinct to judge and condemn? When you yourself make a mistake, are you harshly self-critical? Unable to forgive yourself? Or others? This week, let us individually ponder whether or not we have learned tzedek – how to interact with a compassionate justice and a just compassion.