Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20): a favourite Torah dictum of Progressive Jews. It is found in parashat shof’tim, which opens by outlining the system for administering justice in the context of D’varim, the fifth book of the Torah, also known as ‘Deuteronomy’ – from the Greek, Δευτερονόμιον, Deuteronomion, meaning ‘Second Law’. Deuteronomy takes the form of a series of sermons, delivered by Moses at the end of the Israelites’ forty-year journey through the wilderness. The book stands on its own within the Torah as a document reiterating laws, retelling the people’s story, and recounting their journey. Ostensibly, discovered during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, around 620 BCE (2 Kings 22:1; 8), critical scholarship of the text argues that the book was composed around that time to reintroduce the people, led astray by Josiah’s grandfather, Mannaseh (2 Kings 21:1ff.), to the central teachings of the Torah, as part of a comprehensive programme of reform.

Context is everything. And as we read the Torah, the context for our reading is also important. So, Shof’tim opens by heralding impartiality in justice, a principle that remains at the core of our understanding of justice in democratic societies today. Moreover, towards the end of the portion, in a section dealing with the rules of war, we find a very particular prohibition against destroying the fruit-trees of one’s enemy during a siege on their city (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Extended by the rabbis into the principle, bal taschit, ‘Do not destroy’, prohibiting any needless destruction or waste (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 67b; Chullin 7b, Kiddushin 32a), bal taschit has become the basis of contemporary Jewish ecological ethics.

And there are other passages in Shof’tim that remain relevant for our lives today – concerning, for example, the role of witnesses (19:15-20) – and those that may seem more remote from our experience, such as the special rules relating to the Levitical priests and the tribe of Levi (18:1-8), and the absolute rejection of what were considered the ‘abhorrent’ practices of other peoples (16:2-5; 18:9-14).

But connections and disconnections between ‘then’ and ‘now’ apart, one particular verse seems to transcend differences in time and space: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. The establishment of law codes and the legal apparatus – mishpat – involves skilled administrators, jurists, judges: shof’tim – from the root, Shin Pei Tet, to ‘judge’. Tzedek, on the other hand, is based on the root, Tzadi Dalet Kuf, to be ‘just’, or act ‘justly’. Our parashah opens by declaring that judges, shof’tim, are obligated to dispense ‘just judgements’ – mishpat-tzedek (16:18). And then, the additional insertion of the imperative, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ into a passage dealing principally with mishpat, suggests that it is not sufficient to confine ‘justice’ to a formal legal system. Just as the judges, shof’tim, must execute mishpat-tzedek, the obligation to ‘pursue’ justice devolves upon all the individual members of society. Passages in Deuteronomy (25:15) and Leviticus (19:36), for example, exhort the use of ‘just’ measures in economic transactions.

The full implications of tzedek emerge when we consider the related noun, tz’dakah, used elsewhere in Deuteronomy (24:13) in the context of an act of ‘righteousnous’, and later developed into the obligation to give a portion from our wealth to others (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim, ‘Laws about Giving to Poor People, 10:7-14). Tz’dakah is often translated as ‘charity’ – but tz’dakah is radically different in substance: while charity, based on the Latin, caritas, is giving motivated by feelings of care and love of others, tz’dakah expresses the mitzvah, ‘commandment’, to give irrespective of our feelings, which are, by definition, volatile, and may change.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, you shall pursue’. There is no reason except for the need for emphasis, for tzedek to be repeated. Moreover, in classical Hebrew, the usual syntax of a sentence would require the verb to come first: tirdof, ‘you shall pursue’. And so we have a double emphasis: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. There are so many ways of interpreting this double emphasis for our own times: Tzedek, tzedek: both, in our own locality, and in the country we inhabit; both, in our own nation, and in the wider world. Injustice is not just a feature of tyrannical regimes; it can also be manifest in democratic societies that formally practice the kind of impartiality that Shof’tim presents as a model. The individual has a responsibility to act everywhere.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue: pursue, not simply ‘do’ or ‘keep’ – the usual verbs associated with the mitzvot, commandments, first outlined in the Torah. Justice is not an inert matter, waiting for us to find it; justice is beyond our immediate reach – we have to chase after it, be prepared to struggle, journey, and keep journeying, perhaps, for years. Think about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the decades of effort dedicated by so many tzadikim, righteous people, to the pursuit of justice for both peoples: justice, justice, you shall pursue: justice for Israel and justice for Palestine.

Significantly, the injunction to ‘pursue’ is mentioned elsewhere in TaNaKh in connection with peace. We read in Psalm 34:14: ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ – bakkeish shalom v’rodfeihu. In the context of the heart-wrenching morass of the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are challenged to pursue peace and justice. Indeed, the one cannot be meaningfully realised without the other: no peace without justice; no justice without peace. So many justice-and-peace-pursuing people have said it already – but it needs to be repeated; just like the original quotation in Shof’tim – just like the Book of Deuteronomy itself. Taking our cue from another famous Deuteronomic passage, the Sh’ma (6:4-9), let us take the exhortations to pursue justice and peace to heart, and repeat them, and speak of them, and act on them, again and again, never giving up, even if our goal continues to elude us.


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Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue, UK

Author of Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012) FB & Twitter: @rabbiellisarah