This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22.
It matters what one says first. The lead of a news story — its opening paragraph — includes its most important information. Orators often set the tone of a speech in its opening. America’s Founders put the legislative branch first in Article I of the Constitution, because they wanted Congress to be most important.
This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy reports a series of farewell addresses from Moses to the Israelites. Many scholars liken Deuteronomy to an Israelite constitution. So what Moses talks about first in Deuteronomy tells us something about what Deuteronomy considers most important.
Pretty much the first thing that Moses talks about was the creation of a system of justice. Moses recounts how he charged the Israelite judges to hear out their fellow Israelites and strangers alike, and decide justly between them. Moses admonished them to be impartial in judgment, to hear low and high alike. Deuteronomy put justice first.
Judaism puts a premium on justice. The Tosefta, assembled in about the year 250 CE, told that after the Flood, the children of Noah — that is, all people since then — were admonished to abide by seven Noahide laws. The first of these laws binding on all people is to set up courts of justice. The Rabbis of the Tosefta put justice first.
The Mishnah and the Talmud are divided into six orders. One of those orders, Nezikin, is devoted almost entirely to judicial matters. Purely on space alone, rabbinic literature put a premium on the judicial system.
And in the weekday Amidah prayer — recited morning, afternoon and evening — is the prayer for good judges and justice. The prayer book preserves an honored place for justice.
Justice is a frequent concern here in the Washington area. It’s unusual to have a minyan here that does not have at least one lawyer in it.
Awareness of justice seems ingrained in humanity. Children from an early age have a refined sense of what’s fair and what’s not.
Why is justice important? In this week’s Torah reading, Moses explains that it’s important because people deserve to be treated with equal deference, regardless of their social station. He explains that disputes between people, whether kin or strangers, ought to be resolved fairly based on who is right. He explains that to do this, it is critical to pick judges who are wise, discerning and experienced.
Justice has to do with right and wrong. It means that doing the right thing should be rewarded, and doing the wrong thing should be punished. It means people should be treated according to their actions. This is a central theme of Deuteronomy.
The Torah teaches that God is the ultimate judge. Abraham asks, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?”
Later in Deuteronomy, Moses admonishes all the people: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
How can we pursue justice in our own lives? We can give of our time, votes and resources to support candidates and organizations that fight for access to justice, criminal justice reform and the selection of fair judges. And in our personal lives, we can work to resolve disputes based on who is right and not based on personality.
Justice comes first in Deuteronomy, because justice is a fundamental value of Judaism. Moses calls out to us from the pages of the Torah to try to put justice first in our lives.
Questions to discuss
Why is justice important?
How do we pursue justice?
Why is it important to settle disputes fairly?
Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer from 1986 to 2017, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.