Justice: God’s Promise or Ours? (Shoftim Prayer Links)

“We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayerbook,” Abraham Joshua Heschel told fellow rabbis in 1953. “A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life….We forgot how to find the way to the word, how to be on intimate terms with a few passages in the prayerbook. Familiar with all the words, we are intimate with none.”

In that spirit, I believe parashat Shoftim [judges] calls out for us to get a little more intimate with at least one word:

Tzedek — as in “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…]” (Deut./Devarim 16:20).

The words tzedek [“justice” or “righteousness”] and tzadikim [“just” or “righteous” folk] feature frequently in the siddur and in the Book of Psalms, including a number of psalms recited regularly as part of the liturgy. Perhaps a few examples will provide insights into the soul of “tzedek.”

“Justice” in psalms/siddurPrayer as “promise”Two-paragraph punchline

Bless “Us” Like “the Just”

At the start of weekday morning prayers, we read of God’s betrothal to Israel b’tzedek [in justice]:

I will betroth you to Me forever
I will betroth you to Me
in righteousness and in justice [b’tzedek u’v’mishpat], in kindness and mercy
I will betroth you to Myself in faithfulness,
and you shall know Adonai. (Hosea 2:21-22)

Between Psalm 1, in which God regards/cherishes “the way of the righteous [derekh tzadikim]” (Ps. 1:6), and Psalm 146 in which God “loves the righteous [ohev tzadikim]” (Ps. 146:8), dozens of psalms remark on the fate of just people, identify justice as an attribute of God, and praise God for protecting the righteous. And a number of the justice-related psalms verses have made their way into the siddur. For example:

Psalm 24:5 — “Such ones [w/clean hands, pure heart] will carry with them a blessing from God, a blessing of justice [tzedakah] from the God of salvation” (Torah service, weekday festivals)

Psalm 92:13 — “the righteous [tzadik] will spread their leaves like a palm tree; like a cedar of Lebanon they will reach up high” (psalm for Shabbat)

Psalm 145:17 — “You are righteous [tzadik] in all your words, kind in all your acts” (“Ashrei,” morning, afternoon and evening services)
— from The Complete Psalms,* translated by Pamela Greenberg

The daily Amidah includes a plea for restoration of judges (blessing 11). R. Jonathan Sacks (Koren Siddur*) says blessings 10-12 form a sequence of petition: in-gathering of exiles, self-government once gathered and an end to in-fighting. Mishkan T’filah* alters the sequence somewhat, petitioning for freedom, wise leadership and an end to wickedness. In both cases, however, the series is one that moves toward earthly justice, and the chatimah [closing blessing] calls on God “who loves righteousness and justice [tzedakah u’mishpat].”

Blessing 13 asks God to “show compassion to the righteous [tzadikim]…and to us.” “The focus” in this blessing, notes Marc Brettler (“our biblical heritage”) in My People’s Prayer Book: the Amidah,* “is not on the various categories of righteous people.” Instead, he says, it is “on ‘us,’ who want to be blessed as they are.”

Tzedek,” the prayer book seems to say, is an attribute of God and a quality sought but not so easily embodied by “us.”

A Promise of Justice

Hosea’s words (above) are recited in conjunction with the laying of tefillin.** Apart from this practice, however, it can also be instructive to pause at these words: What does it mean to be betrothed to God “b’tzedek“?

One commentary, from Mishkan T’fillah,* places the active burden on the Jew: “T’fillin illustrate Judaism’s effort to synthesize faith and deed. Wrapping words of Torah around one’s body is a vivid reminder not merely to recite or to study Torah, but to follow its instructions.” However, God is the speaker in Hosea’s verses, so betrothal would seem to obligate God in some way.

Alicia Ostriker takes on the issue of human and divine responsibility for justice in a midrash from the perspective of Job’s wife. Her essay ends as follows:

….We already know what she [Job’s wife] wants. She wants justice to rain down like waters. She wants adjustment, portion to portion, so that the machinery of the world will look seemly and move powerfully and not scrape and scream. The children of God do not really say that God is just. But they invent the idea. They chew it over and over, holding it up to the light this way and that. And though blood drips from the concept, staining their hands, they are persistent. It is their idea. They want justice to rain down like waters. Justice to rain like waters. Justice to rain. Justice to rain.
— p. 240, Alicia Ostriker. Nakedness of the Fathers*

Such a perspective is akin to what theologian Marcia Falk calls “prayer as promise.” She presents this idea in a commentary on the final blessing of the Amidah:

As one who feels uncomfortable with prayer as petition [discussed at length elsewhere in the Amidah volume], I find that prayer as promise — the assertion of personal or communal commitment — is a meaningful alternative. This is not to suggest that the uttering of a promise is a substitute for action; it is only a reminder, a beginning. But it is, I think, an important beginning. I believe, with Abraham Joshua Heschel, that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive,” unless it seeks to overthrow injustice and oppression. As a liturgist, I am guided by the conviction that the purpose of prayer is to lead us, ultimately, to goodness — to the pursuit of justice and peace, and to acts of truth and loving-kindness.”

…I suggest that we turn our petitionary posture into one of cooperation with the divine, which is to say, the commitment to be our best selves.
— p.180, Falk (“feminism”) in the My People’s Prayer Book: the Amidah*

The final Amidah blessing in the mornings — the 19th on weekdays, seventh on Shabbat and festivals — focuses on peace but also speaks of tzedekah. (“Shalom Rav,” the afternoon/evening prayer on non-fast days, does not include the “justice” language.) As in blessings 11 and 13 discussed above, we do not ask directly for justice in this one. Instead tzedakah is described as one aspect of Torah that was given “in the light of [God’s] face”:

Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, grace, kindness, and mercy to us and to all Israel, your People. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, in the light of your face, Adonai our God, You gave us a Torah of life, a love of grace, righteousness [tzedakah], blessing, mercy, life and peace. You see fit to bless your People Israel at all times, at every hour, with your peace. Blessed are You, Adonai, who blesses his People Israel with peace.
— p. 178, My People’s Prayer Book: the Amidah*

Psalm 97 speaks of “righteousness and justice [tzedek u’mishpat]” as the foundation of God’s throne, concluding: “Light is sown for the righteous… [ohr zarua la’tzadik].” Mystical interpretations aside, this psalm suggests that Torah, given “in the light [ohr] of God’s face,” reflects the promise of justice.

In Hosea’s words, we’re betrothed to God “in justice” [b’tzedek], wrapped in the Torah’s command to pursue justice, but never, according to our prayers, quite becoming “tzadikim (“just” or “righteous”). The doubling of “justice” in this week’s portion — “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — can remind us of a doubled pursuit:

— to pursue justice, as Falk describes, through our own commitment, renewed in our prayers, and
— to pursue justice, as Ostriker suggests, through a persistence of vision, demanding of God: We want “justice to rain down like waters…justice to rain.”

* See Source Materials for full citations and more details.
—Please note that you can find Ostriker’s piece on Job’s wife, from Nakedness of the Fathers, on Google Books; however, as I’ve said many times this is a book to read and re-read, so worth borrowing or owning.
—Pamela Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation takes a fresh approach to the psalms and is worth the investment.
—The “My People’s Prayer Book” series from Jewish Lights is available in part through Google Book previews, but this is also resource to buy or borrow — or to aks your synagogue or JCC to buy for all to use.

The Spirit of Prayer was published in the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America [Conservative], Vol. XVII, 1953, and reprinted as a pamphlet. Eventually (1996), the lecture was included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.* Although 57 years old, this lecture is still (sadly, considering his topic) quite pertinent. It is also, like most of Heschel’s writing, just a beautiful thing to read. back

More on tefillin and associated midrash. back

Rabbi (and musician) David Shneyer’s musical rendition — use the fast-forward arrows to scroll down on the little jukebox to “Ohr Zarua” — carries this sense of promise not yet fulfilled.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

2 thoughts on “Justice: God’s Promise or Ours? (Shoftim Prayer Links)”

  1. Your commentary is so rich; it will take me a while to take it all in. What a great aide to study and practice. I hope this will be part of what you speak and publish widely.

    Another way I read the repetition in “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“justice, justice you shall pursue”) is as a
    reminder to participate in communal prayers and actions, instead of focusing only on my individual prayers and actions. At the same time, it’s a reminder that I cannot really contribute as part of a community if I’m not taking responsibility for my individual prayers and actions. No one else can do that for me. While it’s not so hard to learn to do these things, it’s impossible to learn to do them well without consistent practice. The repetition in that verse reminds me to keep trying to establish and maintain realistic expectations and healthy boundaries for what I can do on a regular basis.

    “Tzedek,” the prayer book seems to say, is an attribute of God and a quality sought but not so easily embodied by “us.”

    When I pray this blessing I smile to remember how Norman Shore said it was his plan to surround himself with good people. That’s my plan too, that I might learn to be like them. The justice seeded in their prayers and actions endures even after they have passed on, and it needs our participation to live on. I want justice to be here after I’m gone too, so it’s not just only about me. We want justice to be here after the communities we belong to are gone too, so it’s not just about our generation.

    Then I smile to think of the time you simply played George Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” on the piano instead of giving a d’var Torah. Justice, Righteousness, Tzedakah is a forever and ever process, not a one time outcome only someday in the future; so there’s no end to pursuing tzedek, again and again. Tzedek has been seeded for us, and we are responsible to seed it for those who come after us.

    The melody for “Love is Here to Stay” was the last piece of music George Gershwin wrote before he died. His brother Ira Gershwin had not yet written the lyrics to this song. The songwriting team was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985.

    The Official Website of George and Ira Gershwin

    “It’s very clear
    Our love is here to stay;
    Not for a year
    But ever and a day.
    The radio and the telephone
    And the movies that we know
    May just be passing fancies,
    And in time may go !
    But, oh my dear,
    Our love is here to stay.
    Together we’re
    Going a long, long way
    In time the Rockies may tumble,
    Gibraltar may crumble,
    They’re only made of clay,
    But our love is here to stay.”

    Amy Brookman

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