By Rabbah Arlene Berger
This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9.
Like many people, I’ve been on the lookout for different forms of escapism during this pandemic. My go to is watching legal and police procedurals, primarily fiction, with a bonus if they contain elements of humor (“Midsomer Murders,” for example).
In some ways, my favorite pastime might seem counterintuitive with all that’s going on regarding social justice and division of resources. However, I find it comforting when, in the end, the troublemakers are caught and punished and justice prevails. I acknowledge that these stories aren’t real, but they do give me hope.
Our Torah portion provides us with rules for judiciary behavior: “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
Not the first time we’ve heard this, but it does seem to resonate right now. For a society to work properly, those who uphold the law, while being human, must be beyond reproach. Not only must they be fair and impartial but, most importantly, they must recognize when they are being influenced, be it by the tears of a widow (one of my favorite Chasidic teachings) or by their own implicit biases.
Our judges (and by extension our leaders), both ancient and modern, are made aware that a community doesn’t work unless the laws apply to everyone. We know that the equalization of justice relies on impartiality regarding social and economic status, gender, race and ethnicity. We also know that, too often, both implicit and explicit biases creep into our justice system and deny the very justice to which people are entitled.
A bit later in the parshah, we encounter a concept that is both modern and incredibly empowering: the existence of the High Court of Referral (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). It is where judges turn if they are unable to reach a decision. The very existence of such an option gives us, and particularly those in power, permission to not have all the answers. We are given permission to doubt, question and most importantly, to admit that we do not have all the answers. What a radical concept.
Our world is undergoing great transition and correction. Injustices are being called out at a rate that feels unprecedented and by a wide and varied mix of individuals and groups. Torah commentators note that while the first two verses in the parshah are addressed specifically to the judges and magistrates, verse 19 is addressed to all the people.
The Torah is reminding us that while justice is key to a functioning society, proper justice can’t exist unless we all uphold it. We know, both from history and the present day, that upholding justice can be dangerous, full of risks that run the gamut from social ostracism to loss of employment to physical harm and even death. Yet this must not deter us.
We pursue justice at all costs so that we may live and thrive. We pursue justice so that future generations can live in a world where today’s disparities are eradicated or at least minimized. The book of Deuteronomy provides a blueprint for how to form a just, functioning society. All we have to do now is follow it. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live/thrive” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Warrenton, Va.