Consider the following verses:
דברים ט״ז:כ׳ Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
מיכה ו׳:ח׳ Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God;” הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
שמות כ״ג:ב׳ Exodus 23:2 “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice” or translated “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—” לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת
These three verses are examples of the centrality of justice in the Torah. Indeed, throughout the Tanakh and Talmud and later writings, the issues surrounding the need for just action, for justice for the wronged, for justice for the criminal, justice for those who are on the fringes, and justice from HaShem are repeatedly explored and reframed.
The theme of justice is one that is a clarion call for action. It requires that one understand what has happened and can identify the wrongs that have been done to someone. There are three main aspects to implementing justice in one’s life.
The first, in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” was a directive given to the Israelites as they neared the end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness. The word Justice is doubled. Many commentators through the ages have pondered the meaning of the doubling. Hebrew is written in such a way that doubling is not merely poetic reframing, but has actual content meaning. Some commentators see this doubling as indicating that we should pursue both personal and societal justice. Other commentators say this means pursuing justice regardless if it ends in personal loss or personal gain. Still others say that it indicates pursuing justice all the time throughout time. It is focused on gaining justice for the litigants in a trial. Many see this as pursuing both legal justice and societal justice.
The second verse is Micah 6:8, “And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God”. Through the ages, there were many commentaries on just what this verse meant. It is clearly an action verse. We are to do, to love, to walk. Action. It is what is required of us if we are intending to walk a spiritual path. The early commentaries felt this was a very expansive verse, encompassing the whole of the spiritual path in one short verse. Over the centuries many commentators reduced this to very specific acts only, rather than examples of the concepts in the verse. When taken in context with the book, we can see that the prophet Micah defines justice and how to walk with HaShem in very clear terms, often through the use of a negative example, i.e. what not to do. As Dr. Erica Brown wrote in her commentary, “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible…Walking modestly for the prophet is walking with eyes wide open to the presence of anyone in need, waiting to perform acts of mercy, justice, and lovingkindness. Looking at a glimpse of the exegetical history of Micah 6:8 and its contextual meaning takes us straight back to the Talmud’s expansive understanding. Religion stripped to its most essential elements asks both very little and a great deal of us: to return to a state of simplicity, broken and small in God’s presence, able, in a state of vulnerability, to make those invisible visible, to create a society where we walk beside others because God is willing to walk beside us.
The third verse here, Exodus 23:2, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice” is one I thought of quite a lot during 2020. Multitude is also translated as “mighty” in some sources. Either way, whether it is multitude or mighty or both, it is clear that we are not to follow along if the crowd or the powerful are leading us toward injustice. In these cases, we must stand against the mighty or the majority if needed. Watching the political powers continuing to lead toward a state of injustice for so many, watching those with authority committing injustice towards both individuals and groups, and seeing the delicate balance created by the educational authorities crumble under the pressure of educating our children in a pandemic and doing so with justice and equity reminded me over and over again why we stand against injustice of all types. I often wore my t-shirt from T’ruah that stated “Resisting Tyrants Since Pharaoh”. It seems we were working hard to bring down or expose the pharaohs of our day quite a bit this last year.
These three verses point to the centrality of the understanding of Justice within the Torah and the later commentaries. It is a quality that has come to have a central role in many Jewish and non-Jewish lives right now. So many areas are in need of true justice. These verses give a few pointers on how to live. We are to pursue justice in all its forms and arenas, we are to do justice when we find it by loving goodness so we see when something isn’t good, and walking humbly or modestly so we are open to spotting opportunities for justice. And lastly, we are to oppose the majority and those in power if they are perpetuating or leading toward injustice. Justice is at the core of Judaism.
May we walk in justice,
Paula E Popper, © 2021
Dr. Erica Brown, Associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Education and Leadership, https://www.jewishideas.org/article/walking-humbly-brief-interpretive-history-micah-68
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, www.truah.org
Translations and some commentaries through www.Sefaria.org