Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy (Shoftim: Deut 16:18-21:9) tells the Israelites what to do, upon entering the land, “if a corpse be found..the identity of the slayer not being known.” This is the elaborate ritual involving the Red Heifer in which the elders of the nearest town must be prepared to declare, “Our hands did not […]

How lovely are these tents! not far from housing that has seen better days and housing that has seen too many awful ones. I love the place of Your house, reached through streets collecting cigarette butts, the odd chicken wing, echoes of homicide. Through Your abundant love, I enter Your house, where these peaceful walls […]

Instructions to appoint judges “for yourselves,” in “all your tribes,” or, more literally, “in all your gates,” opens the Torah portion Shoftim [judges] (Deut 16:18-21:9), and the famous line, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…],” follows:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים,
תִּתֶּן-לְךָ
בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ,
אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.
— Deut. 16:18 (mechon-mamre.org; translation “Old JPS”)

Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements that God your Lord is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment for the people.
— another translation, from Bible.Ort.Org

Last week at Temple Micah, the commentary discussed the emphasis, throughout Deuteronomy, on centralizing ritual. In contrast, we see here that judges and justices are to be local concerns.

Julia Watts Belser writes in Torah Queeries:

We are asked to find judges who recognize the landscape of our lives, who have lived in similar terrain and can help us navigate its cliffs and fissures. We are expected to come before judges who expect holiness within us and consequently find it – who know our goodness and consequently call it forth.
–“Setting Yourselves Judges,” pages 250-253

She notes that we all belong to many tribes – pointing out that for example, she is a bisexual rabbi with a disability and that queerness alone means belong both to one tribe and many. She asks how her white skin and wheels and Jewishness intersect, concluding that “no single judge will hold all our answers, and no single officer will provide us with a perfect map.”

I had hoped to discuss various tribes to which we all belong and how they intersect. Events forced my attention toward different local justice issues. But I wanted to share her commentary, which I found inspiring and hope to pursue further another time, before moving in the different direction I was led.

The words of Torah I did write are a bit much, in a number of ways, for one post. So look for more on this shortly.
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“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.”
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This portion includes some famous lines, e.g.: Continue reading

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human [ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh] to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees which you know do not yield food may be destroyed….
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“You shall be wholehearted with HASHEM Your God” Continue reading