Got so caught up with the beginning of Elul on Tuesday night that I almost forgot about this week’s Torah portion (Shoftim / Judges) containing the line that has influenced my life more than any other in the text. Go figure. Anyway, the verse goes like this:
Justice, justice you will pursue, so that you may live in and possess the land that YHWH your God is giving you.
Justice – tzedek – is also righteousness, right living, equity, integrity; the way we relate one to the other in fairness and with a certain humility. It is the clear intention to do justly. I dig it.
And yet, as you can see in this week’s poetic offering (After the Arrest of Radovan Karadzic), justice is not a simple thing. Where does justice end and revenge begin? Who gets to define just and unjust? Where does mercy enter into the picture? And how shall the judges judge?
The Torah is pretty straightforward, if a bit funny on these questions, and I don’t mean funny ha-ha. There is a system of judges and 613 specific laws, give or take. But there’s also mixed messages, especially as seen through these 21st century eyes:
- If someone has worshipped other gods, there needs to be a thorough inquiry and facts clearly established before that person is stoned to death.
- There must be two witnesses in order to put someone to death – and the witnesses are the ones charged with throwing the first stone.
- If there’s a controversy in the local courts, the problem goes to the priests or magistrate and for dispensation. Anyone who doesn’t follow the verdict will be stoned. That will invoke the fear of God in other upstarts.
- When a city is on the take-over list, peace must first be offered – and slavery. If this offer is rejected, every male must be killed, and the women, children, and livestock taken as booty. And in an act of environmental stewardship, the trees are not to be cut down.
Safeguards and violence, strict rules and compassion. Rules, and rules about the rules, just to make sure. For me, the biggest stumbling block is the non-universality of the justice described. There are, in truth, two sets of rules – one for what goes on between us Jews and one that kicks in between us and them.
My own bent would be to figure out a workable definition of justice and apply it across the board, no exceptions. That’s all. (No biggie.)
But, in truth: a great big biggie. Which is why, even though my gut was hungry – as I say in the first line of the poem – for punishment regarding Mr. Karadzic, my mind said something else again, and then the heart kicked in, and then the gut, round and round. Even with someone as despicable as a cold-blooded killer, I’ve got questions. About what we owe him and his co-conspirators, all of the victims, and ourselves.
Maybe that’s why we pursue justice, justice – the multiple and not the singular.