Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, Shayndel bat Mordechai Yehudah, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Our parasha includes the celebrated verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue (tzedek tzedek tirdof), that you may live and possess the land Hashem, your G-d, is giving you.” (Sefer Devarim 16:20, this and all Tanach translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach, with my emendations) As this commandment is given to the entire Jewish people, we must have a shared understanding as to what the term tzedek means. Fortunately, in his Aramaic elucidation of the Torah, Onkelos (35-120 CE) helps us find just such common ground. He interprets tzedek tzedek tirdof as, kushta kushta hevai radif (“Truth, truth you shall pursue.”) This explanation is buttressed in two pasukim in Sefer Tehillim wherein “justice” and “truth” appear in juxtaposition:
He who walks uprightly and works justice (tzedek) and speaks truth (emet) in his heart. (15:2)
And your glory is that you will pass and ride for the sake of truth (emet) and just (tzedek) humility, and it shall instruct you so that your right hand shall perform awesome things. (45:5)
Onkelos’ penetrating insight into the authentic nature of tzedek, reveals that it is inseparable from emet: That which is just, is that which is true.
Why, did the Torah deem it necessary to repeat the word tzedek, when it appears “tzedek tirdof—you should pursue justice” would have been sufficient? In his Commentary on the Torah on our pasuk, the Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1092 to c. 1164-1167) offers the following multi-level answer:
The reason [why the Torah states] “tzedek” twice [in our verse, is three-fold in nature]: [Regardless] as to whether you benefit or suffer a loss [from pursuing tzedek, you must unhesitatingly do so]; another reason for this repetition is [to teach us] that [achieving] tzedek is a lifelong quest; then, too, it is to strengthen our resolve [to make tzedek the touchstone of our lives]. (Translation and brackets my own)
The Ibn Ezra interprets the repetition of tzedek as a charge to individuals, in the sense that it must be our unfailing objective no matter how we may be affected on a practical level. Moreover, in his view, we must realize that in order to make tzedek an intrinsic part of our lives, we must ever be vigilant.
Closer to our own time, in his Commentary on the Torah on our verse, Rabbeinu Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) expands upon the Ibn Ezra’s position and views the repetition of tzedek as the Torah’s attempt to shape the behavior of the entire Jewish people, both on the individual and national level:
Justice should be the highest and singular goal of the entire nation. Moreover, one ought to aspire for justice in and of itself. All other considerations must be subordinated to achieve this purpose. Justice is that which shapes all connections and attachments of the individual and the community in order to conform to the requirements of Hashem’s Torah. The role of a Jewish individual is to pursue that which is just in an unceasing manner coupled with complete dedication. (Translation and underlining my own from the Hebrew edition of the German text)
This concept has been part of Jewish consciousness for centuries. As Yeshayahu the prophet declared so long ago: “And I [Hashem] will restore your judges as at first and your counselors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness (ihr hatzedek), Faithful City. Tzion shall be redeemed through justice and those who return unto her through righteousness (bitzdakah).” (1:26-27) With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may this time come soon and in our days, v’chane yihi ratzon.
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