The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:
- God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
- Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
- Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).
The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
“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.”
This portion uses the phrase elohim acheirim asher lo-y’datem: “other gods” (Alter, Fox, JPS translations) or “gods of others” (Stone) “which/that you did not know” (Alter/Stone), “whom you have not known” (Fox) or “whom you have not experienced” (JPS). (See below for citations*.)
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced [asher lo-y’datem].”
—Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26-28 (trans. from JPS/Plaut
Throughout Devarim/Deuteronomy, Moses has reminded the people, in essence, “you were there”: You saw. You heard. You covenanted. Etc. This portion introduces an additional idea: You “knew/experienced/[yod-dalet-shem]” God.