Deut. 16:18 – 21:9
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Torah exists to a great extent to teach us how to create just communities, and this week’s parasha is a focal point towards that end. “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – Justice, justice, you shall pursue” [Deut. 16:20] is one of the foundational verses of Torah, yet how do we bring it to life?
If you were to build a just community from scratch, where would you begin? What cornerstone would be necessary to not only support but ensure that your community would be just?
It is no easy question. Thank God, the Torah does not keep us hanging. Here is the complete text of the opening verses of Shoftim, which explain the first essential steps:
Judges and overseers you shall set for yourself within all your gates that the Lord your God is about to give to you according to your tribes, they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not skew judgment. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent. Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and take hold of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you. [Deut. 16:18-20]
So far so good – this makes sense from the standpoint of civil law. Yet the Torah is not done. The very next verses take a dramatic turn:
You shall plant you no cultic pole, no tree, by the altar of the Lord your God which you will make you. And you shall set you up no pillar which the Lord your God hates. [Deut. 16:21-2]
This is exactly what you were thinking should come next, right?
While it might not be intuitive to the modern reader, these last two verses are the essential foundation for Torah’s vision of a just community. They are commandments against idolatry, and their placement here in the text is a reminder that idolatry is a root cause of injustice.
Human beings are innately spiritual – we are wired for worship. And we are specialists when it comes to making and serving idols. An idol is a false god, something made in our own image. Today, most people do not create idols out of wood or stone, but the general sense of idolatry is the same: if we put our trust in our idol, if we devote ourselves to it then we hope and even expect that it will provide us with safety and security, well-being, and fulfillment. Today many of us worship idols such as money, or power, or our bodies, or popularity. We think that if we just acquire enough power, or enough wealth, or if our bodies are as close to “perfect” as possible, or if enough people follow us online, then everything will fall into place in our lives.
These are empty gods, false gods. They do not provide fulfillment, or security, or peace. Those who pursue these idols never have enough, they are never satisfied.
What does this have to do with building just communities?
Idols are about our own personal agendas, not about the greater good. A society which places the desires and wants of each individual over the common good will never be just. As our parsha opens, justice should not be dependent on who you know, or how much you are able to pay as a bribe. Torah teaches us that we need a wider perspective – the kind of perspective only God can bring. Torah teaches us to view God with a sense of awe, to follow God’s teachings, to make God’s will our own instead of trying to twist God to serve our own petty agendas. In this way we can build truly just communities where we can live with a sense of well-being and fulfillment, peace, and security.
The first step is the most difficult: before all else we must acknowledge and then rid ourselves of the many idols we still serve.