This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or “judges”. The word, when used as a verb, also means “they judge”. You can read the text here.
In this portion, the famous quote “justice, justice shall you pursue” makes an appearance. What stands out to me, though, is the rest of the quote. Few people disagree with the concept of justice, even if we might have radically different concepts of what it means. It is the rest of the quote which particularly intrigues me.
In the Reform translation, it reads: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.” The Jewish Publication Society’s version reads: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”
In today’s political climate, the difference between the word “inherit” and “occupy” is everything. For now, I’ll leave it at that, but the verse clearly complicates your point of view no matter where you stand politically. “Inherit” is a gentle word. When someone passes away, you may find yourself with a “yerusha” or inheritance, the same root as the word used in this famous Torah quote. It is something passive, something that comes to you- that you do not conquer.
Occupy, on the other hand, is a very different way to put things. And without delving too deep in the morass that is Middle Eastern politics, if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum, this biblical dictate certainly complicates our relationship with the Divine. And our engagement with Torah itself.
And yet what intrigues me the most about this particular verse is the connection made between pursuing justice and receiving political autonomy. In other words, the Land of Israel isn’t simply given to the Jewish people in the Bible. This verse makes abundantly clear that it rests on the pursuit of justice for it to be fully realized. After all, one could simply say “justice, justice shall you pursue” without any mention of the Land of Israel. But this verse makes the connection explicit. That our gift of self-determination is contingent, indeed dependent, on doing the right thing.
The implications are enormous. The Bible, after all, is an incredibly political document. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the text itself. And the text has enormous implications for today’s world. After all, the early Zionist movement explored other locations for a Jewish homeland, including in Africa. But the heart pulled us in the direction of our ancestral land. A land which did not lay empty- which is still precariously shared between two peoples. If the text of the Torah did not include verse after verse promising the Jewish people this sliver of territory, today’s politics would be quite different. And we might be eating yams instead of hummus.
The implications also extend to how we engage as a people in this Land. It is, in my view, not enough that we are simply promised a piece of territory by an ancient document. This ancient document, filled with wisdom (if sometimes in need of an update), makes clear that any society which is to flourish, to “thrive” in this Land must pursue justice. It is far from a free pass to do as we will without regard to humanity- both our own and that of other peoples in the region. The humanity of the poor, the humanity of refugees both Jewish and not, the humanity of Palestinians, the humanity of olim, the humanity of the stranger among us. The humanity of every person in need. That is the mandate we are given to pursue over and over again in the Torah.
So where does that leave us today? It might be enough for me to suggest it as an interesting lesson for our personal lives. To be good people, and to seek out justice however we can as individuals on a daily basis. Something I absolutely believe in and strive to pursue.
Yet we can’t ignore the fact that Israeli elections are around the corner. On September 17, the Israeli public will decide the next chapter of our history. Far be it from me to endorse a particular political party, I will simply suggest that justice be a metric for our decision-making process. Does this political party stand for the greater good of society? Does this party seek peace and pursue it? Does this party balance our need for security with our need to treat all humans with kindness and humaneness?
That is the barometer our Torah sets out. There is no more repeated commandment than that which asks us to welcome the stranger. So this election season, as frustrating as it can be, let us find an opportunity to search our hearts for compassion and wisdom. So that Israel, the Jewish people, and all humankind can progress in a fashion worthy of the justice we must build. And to use our self-determination responsibly, on foundations of truth and hope.
The cover photo is of me and an African refugee in Tel Aviv at a rally to support their human rights.