In pursuit of justice

Not only should we pursue righteous goals, our methods in achieving those goals must be righteous as well.

In pursuit of justice (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
In pursuit of justice
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE TORAH portion Shoftim opens with the classic phrase, “ tzedek tzedek tirdof .” “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteron - omy 16:20). Why repeat the word tzedek ? Is it for emphasis? Is it to teach us how important the pursuit of justice is to the worldview of the Torah? Or is the Torah trying to make a statement about what tzedek really means? Tzedek can be translated in two ways, justice or righteousness.
Tzedek means to act ethically, but it can also be used to describe our spiritual strivings. A tzaddik , a righteous person, is one who is of the highest character and is simultaneously intensely connected to God.
Perhaps this is why the word is repeated: to convey that we should strive to be a moral people and to form a close relationship with God.
In repeating the word tzedek , both of these meanings are articulated in a way that stresses their interconnectedness. From a Jewish reli - gious perspective, the pursuit of spirituality must be infused with a moral dimension, and morality must be based in spirituality.
However, the entire purpose of the Torah is about achieving tzedek.
All of the various commandments are given to transform us ethically and spiritually. If this is so, then why at almost the end of the Torah, are we told “ tzedek tzedek tirdof ”? It is to remind us of the essential interconnectedness of command - ments and tzedek . It is unfortunately very easy to follow halakha (Jewish religious law) perfectly, in a technical sense, but somehow miss the goals of being moral people and coming closer to God. There are people who can carry out every commandment there is, and yet they do not understand that all of the commandments are intended to bring tzedek into the world. Let me share with you two examples of this phenomenon.
There was a family-owned kosher meat business in Iowa called Agriprocessors. This was a company that followed the highest level of kosher standards. No detail of Jewish law was missed. Rabbis of several prominent organizations gave them their approval. However, Agriprocessors also engaged in financial improprieties, mistreated its workers, employed child labor, violated immigration laws and caused undue pain and suffering to animals in the process of slaughtering them. Every detail of the laws of kashrut was being followed – but Agriprocessors was not kosher in any way. As a company, it missed the message of tzedek tzedek tirdof .
The second example concerns a group of observant Jewish men who follow the laws of Shabbat and kashrut in every detail, who pray regularly, and who send their children to Jewish day schools. However, they also love football. Their team was playing a crucial game that was on Shabbat and they wanted to be at the game.
They found a hotel in walking distance of the arena, arranged to not have to carry their tickets to the arena so they would not break the law of carrying in a public domain on Shabbat, and had enough people to have a minyan (the quorum needed for a public prayer ser - vice). They brought with them a Torah scroll, prayer books and all the other required religious articles, and they had a kosher gourmet caterer prepare Shabbat meals for them. They went to their game and cheered their team on.
However, though they did not contravene halakha , though they ful - filled every necessary commandment, they missed the entire purpose of Shabbat. I know a number of people who come nowhere near the level of technical observance of these men, and yet understand better what Shabbat is about. These sports fans did not understand what tzedek tzedek tirdof really means.
As important as the details of halakha are, we must make sure that we do not miss the message of tzedek tzedek tirdof . Our observance of commandments should not be an experience of checking off a “things to do list.” Commandments need to guide us on our mission of living our lives ethically and spiritually.
How can we ensure that we retain this message? The great Hassidic Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explains that the repetition of the word tzedek is done to indicate that it is not enough to pur - sue tzedek . We must do so in a tzedek -like manner. In other words, not only should we pursue righteous goals, our methods in achieving those goals must be righteous as well.
 Rabbi David Kalb is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Central Synagogue in New York. He can be contacted at ravkalb@