“Justice–the Source of Security of the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, calls upon the People of Israel to formally establish courts of law in every city in the land of Israel.

The Torah mandates that, in addition to the requisite judges, officers of the court be appointed who will be responsible for enforcement of the judicial decisions. These officers are to patrol the streets and marketplaces to enforce standards of honesty, and summon violators before the court to be judged.

One of the most formidable and frequently-cited verses of the Torah is found in this parasha. In Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses cries out to the Jewish People in G-d’s name, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹ קֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land, that the L-rd, your G-d gives you.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his erudite remarks regarding the concept of justice in Judaism, cites Rabbeinu Bachya, who notes that the repetition of the Hebrew words, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק   “Tzedek tzedek,” Justice, justice, is intended to underscore the importance of even-handed justice to all. “Justice,” says Rabbeinu Bachya, is imperative, “whether [it is] to your profit or loss, whether in word or an action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

Rabbi Hertz considers the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to be the “keynote of the humane legislation of the Torah, and of the demand for social righteousness by Israel’s Prophets, Psalmists and Sages.”

Rabbi Hertz also clarifies the difference in the meaning of “justice” in Jewish tradition in contrast to the meaning of justice to the Greeks:

In Plato’s Republic, for example, it [justice] implies a harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. It stresses the qualities of human nature…

On the other hand, says Rabbi Hertz, the Jewish concept of justice stresses the equality of human beings. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, that every human being possesses a Divine spark, and that each human life is sacred and of infinite worth.

Rabbi Hertz drives the message home by declaring:

Judaism requires that human personality be respected in every human being–in the female heathen prisoner of war, in the delinquent, even in the criminal condemned to death. The lashes to be inflicted on the evil-doer must be strictly limited, lest ‘your brother seem vile unto you’ (Deuteronomy 25:3), and, if he be found worthy of death by hanging, his human dignity must still be respected: his body is not to remain hanging overnight, but must be buried the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Greek idea of justice, argues Rabbi Hertz, is akin to harmony, whereas the Hebrew idea of justice is more akin to holiness.

Quoting an anonymous American jurist, Rabbi Hertz declares that the world owes its conception of justice to the Jews.

In addition to introducing the revolutionary idea of justice to humankind, the fact that the Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:20, links the practice of justice to the security of the land of Israel, is of extreme importance.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to Deuteronomy 16:20, notes as follows:

The double promise of verse 20 (“that you may thrive and occupy the land”) means: To pursue the goal of justice unceasingly with full devotion is Israel’s great task in order that its physical and political existence be secured. The significant truth is thereby laid down, that the possession of the land [by the People of Israel] comes into question every minute, and has to be constantly merited afresh (i.e., through justice) by a Jewish state.

Significantly, we find once again, that there is much in parashat Shoftim’s message that applies to contemporary affairs. The outburst of anti-Semitism throughout the world in response to Israel’s valiant attempt to defend itself from thousands of Hamas missiles, raises many questions in light of what the Torah teaches in parashat Shoftim.

After 2,000 years of exile and the miraculous return of the Jewish people to its land, it seems quite clear from the comments of Rabbi Hirsch (who lived long before the establishment of the State of Israel), that there are no guarantees that the Jewish people will permanently possess the land of Israel. In fact, this very verse boldly implies that the People of Israel may lose possession of the land at any time, especially if they fail to properly practice the mitzvah of justice.

I have often noted that in all of Jewish history there has never been a period of peace without a concomitant return to G-d. Once again, the Torah here confirms that the security of the land of Israel is not dependent upon military strength, but on the just pursuits of the Jewish people.

Surely, we may vociferously defend ourselves from the vicious anti-Israel outcries of many world leaders, by declaring that Israel’s army is the most moral army on the face of the earth. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has declared that the Israeli army deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the way it has conducted itself. There is no question that numerous Israeli soldiers have lost their lives because they erred on the side of caution in order to protect innocent Palestinian civilians, leaving themselves vulnerable to Hamas terrorists, who take advantage of the I.D.F. soldiers’ compassion.

Let us hope and pray that the meritorious deeds of the Jewish people will soon result in greater security for the State of Israel. While it is important for Jews to continue to speak out frequently, to organize demonstrations and record our voices in support of Israel, it is equally, if not more important to raise the level of our peoples’ moral behavior and actions during this especially sensitive and perilous time for the Jewish people.

If we do this, if we indeed strive for a higher level of sanctity in our words, actions and deeds, the Jewish people will surely prevail, and merit that the security of the land of Israel will be ensured, from now until the end of time.

May you be blessed.