Our parasha, Shoftim, contains the celebrated verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, [in order] that you may live and possess the land the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you.” (Devarim 16:20). In his commentary, Rashi, basing himself on a variety of rabbinic sources, explains the words as referring to one’s obligation to “seek out a good court,” in order to ensure that true and abiding justice be achieved. Given Rashi’s stature, this has become the classic understanding of the phrase.
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin shlita, rav in Fairlawn, New Jersey and rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, once made reference to a different application of tzedek: “affirming with certainty that what’s yours is really yours.”
Alexander the Great once visited the community of Afriki and wished to observe its judicial system. Two men came before the king for justice. The first said, “I purchased a plot of land from this man, and when I dug to lay the foundation of a home, I found a treasure buried there. I only bought the land, not the treasure, therefore it is not mine.” The seller said, “I, too, am fearful of the biblical prohibition of ‘do not steal,’ and I, too, do not want it back unless it is definitely mine.” The king asked the buyer if he had a son; he answered “yes.” The seller answered positively to having a daughter. “Wonderful,” said the king, “let them marry and share the treasure” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 27:1).
Like the story in this Midrash, Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa stresses the importance of tzedek in all of our actions. In so doing, he explains the pasuk’s repetition of “tzedek” in a highly original manner:
“One must be particularly careful to infuse both his actions and words with justice; for it is precisely these matters wherein it is possible for a person to harm himself and others. Therefore, the verse states ‘tzedek’ twice — once to refer to him and once to others … As such, it is fitting and proper for every Jewish person to ensure that their words and actions are permeated with justice. As the text states: ‘The remnant of Israel shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth, for they shall graze and lie down, with no one to cause them to shudder’” (Tzephaniah 3:13).
Without a doubt, the expression “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” has become a watchword among the Jewish people. This concept was given powerful voice in our own time by United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a stirring speech at the Capitol Rotunda on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2004.
“My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post … on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof’ — ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’”
With Hashem’s help, may we pursue the noble goal of tzedek, so that we may be counted among those who “neither commit injustice nor speak lies.” If we can achieve this lofty goal, we will be well on our way to fulfilling the prophet Micha’s ancient words (6:8): “O man, what is good, and what does the L-rd demand of you? Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your G-d.”