צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof …
Justice, justice you shall pursue … (Deuteronomy 16:20).
This is one of the central declarations and core mitzvot of the Torah. The entire passage reads:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Decide justly between the Israelite and the stranger alike. Take no bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice you shall pursue … (Deuteronomy 16:18–20).
This is a central theme of our Torah and is repeated in various sets of instructions throughout the five books. For example, in Exodus, we read YHVH’s charge to the people:
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right for I will not acquit the wrongdoer. Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right. Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:6–8).
The pursuit of justice has, from the beginning, been a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Perhaps our origin as slaves sensitized us to this principle. Over the millennia, a deeply thoughtful, detailed and sensitive discussion emerged as generations of Jewish thinkers expanded and expounded upon the question of what it means to treat everyone justly and fairly.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. In true Jewish fashion, let’s take this phrase apart one word at a time and see what insights emerge. We begin with the word tzedek. Hebrew is a language based on root words; out of the root, many words are created, all of which share a cluster of related meanings. צֶדֶק Tzedek means “justice” or “righteousness” — that is, doing the right thing. One of its close relatives is צְדָקָה tzedakah, usually translated in English as “charity.” Linguistically and conceptually, however, there is a critical distinction between the terms. “Charity” is derived from the Latin caritas, which means “love” or “regard.” Charity is an act of love, of giving freely. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an act of justice, understood by Jews to be a duty. The intention of giving tzedakah is to help manifest a basic Jewish goal: to enable every person to live with dignity because every person has been created in the image of God. If you can give out of love, so much the better, says Jewish law; but you give first of all because it is the right thing to do.
There is another word from the same root that you may recognize — צַדִּיק tzaddik. A tzaddik, a righteous person, is one who has embodied the quality of tzedek, treats people equitably and pursues justice as a matter of course. A tzaddik understands that all people are reflections of the Divine and has placed himself or herself entirely in service of bringing tzedek into the world.
The second word, תִּרְדֹּף tirdof, means “pursue.” Why are we told to pursue justice, rather than simply to achieve justice? Commandments in the Torah do not equivocate; they simply tell us what we must do. In fact, we are instructed to pursue only two commandments in the entire body of mitzvot: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — and בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ Bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu — “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:15). How interesting that justice and peace are considered pursuits, rather than concrete achievements! In the Jewish view, peace and justice exist as ideals for which we strive, but neither is attainable in ideal or permanent form here in our morally complex and ever-changing world. To attain perfect justice would mean that we not only have the ability to see every side of a conflict, but even the ability to predict the unfolding ramifications of each decision we render. This infinite perspective is simply beyond our ken as limited beings. This is the provenance of God, one of whose names in Jewish tradition is דַּיָּן אֱמֶת Dayan Emet — the True Judge. We know the terror and tyranny that result whenever humans ascribe to themselves the power to proclaim absolute justice or keep an absolute peace. We know that even our best judgments are inevitably fraught with unknowns and with unintended consequences.
And so, our tradition instructs us to humbly pursue, rather than to triumphantly attain, justice. Our sincere and wholehearted pursuit of this elusive goal elevates us and dignifies all those around us. There is no final arrival (at least not until the Messiah comes, so say some); it is the pursuit in which we are commanded to engage.
Finally, why is tzedek repeated in the phrase, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof? Would it not have been sufficient for the Torah to declare, Tzedek, tirdof — “Justice you shall pursue?” Reish Lakish, who lived and taught in Tiberias in the third century C.E., taught that the repetition of tzedek in the phrase we are analyzing is to remind us to be deliberate and careful in judgment, revisiting and reviewing the case, and not rushing into a decision. (In Jewish law, a beit din, or rabbinical court, waits until the next day before delivering a guilty verdict.) Similarly, Maimonides, living in Egypt in the 11th century C.E., taught that the repetition emphasizes the need to consult with others, garnering as many points of view as possible before reaching a decision.
Others have argued that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of the officials and the courts, but also of each individual. As was taught in the name of Rabbi Hiyya, a fourth-century scholar, “If a person is neither a scholar, nor a teacher, nor known for observing all the ritual commandments, but stands up to protest against evil, such a person is considered a blessing.”
Still others in the Talmud explain the repetition of “justice” refers to the need for just compromise. It is understood that often, two justified claims clash with each other; thus, tzedek, tzedek. The rabbis explained that the repetition of tzedek teaches us that when two justified claims clash with each other, the just solution is for the parties to find a compromise between them.
Bakhya ben Asher, living in Spain in the 12th century, taught that the double emphasis means justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.
In 19th-century Poland, Reb Yaakov Yitkhak of P’shischa interpreted the word’s repetition to connote that the end does not justify the means: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of the worthy cause.”
All this, from one extra word! And here, in North America at the end of the 20th century, the words still compel us. How do we pursue justice in our lives and in our society today? I must admit to a sense of despair and fatigue as I witness the political climate of our country. (I resonate these days with a line of Lily Tomlin’s: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”) What is happening to our society’s ideals of mutual responsibility? What can I do?
The wording of the mitzvah is very important now: We are commanded to pursue justice, even if the attainment of justice seems remote. Don’t give up; your actions make a difference. It is incumbent upon us to reach beyond our sense of gloom or apathy, and to continue our sacred pursuit of creating a just and righteous civilization. Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
In fact, every single day is filled with opportunities to treat people ethically and fairly, to give the benefit of the doubt, to stand up against injustice, to enact just solutions, to do the right thing. In every human exchange, with loved ones and with strangers, with clients and with customers, with employees and with bosses, we can make it our goal to bring more tzedek into the world. May each of us give tzedakah, pursue tzedek and strive to become a tzaddik. In private or in public, in large or small ways, may each of us keep choosing to do the right thing.