Shoftim 5772 – Pursue Justice

 צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

 Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.


The Hertz commentary on the Torah, written in 1936, praises this verse as one of the highest ideals found in the entire Torah – in fact as one of the pillars of civilization, a gift from the Jews to the human race. Hertz says “The duplication of the word ‘justice’ brings out with the greatest possible emphasis the supreme duty of even-handed justice to all.” He quotes Bachya ben Asher: “Justice, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, to the Jew or non-Jew.” He sums up a lengthy teaching on justice with, “The pure administration of justice is thus one of the conditions of Israel’s existence as a nation. Our teachers, from the first of them to the last, brand the perversion of the course of justice as the most alarming sign of national decay.”

Our right to live in the land of Israel – our right to “inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” – depends on our vigorous pursuit of justice.

Our – Israel’s – failure to live up to the high ideals of this verse is the greatest existential threat to the state of Israel. Contrary to what Prime Minister Netanyahu may want us to believe, the corruption of justice in Israel is actually a greater threat to our endurance on the land than his current favorite bogeyman, Iran.

So let’s look at two questions: 1) how bad off is justice in Israel; and 2) why should the lack of justice be an existential threat?

Many people point out that compared to the countries around us, Israel is far more just. As I’ve said before, it’s not good enough to be better than Syria. Or Saudi Arabia. If nations were ranked from the most just – which would include primarily the Western democracies, with liberals and Conservatives arguing whether Scandinavia is more just than America or not – to the least just, such as Syria, murdering its own citizens, or Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and adulterers are stoned – Israel is no doubt in the bottom half.

The biggest injustices in Israel today are in the arenas of civil rights and the treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank.

  • Is it just that a woman can be arrested – as four were arrested on Sunday – for wearing a prayer shawl in public?
  • Is it just that someone descended from the priestly class, the Kohenim, cannot marry a divorced woman?
  • Is it just that Conservative or Reform Jews cannot be married by Conservative or Reform rabbis?
  • Is it just that intermarriage is against the law? (I’m not advocating intermarriage – but isn’t this like when interracial marriages were illegal in America?)
  • Is it just that women can be forbidden to speak at funerals?
  • Is it just that there is a draft of all 18-year-olds – except the ultra-Orthodox? (expiration of the Tal Law notwithstanding, they are not being drafted yet)
  • Is it just that secular Jews work and pay taxes to support ultra-Orthodox men who don’t work and who spit at the people paying their bills (if they are women not dressed to their standards)?
  • Is it just that Jews can “reclaim” houses in East Jerusalem, but Muslims cannot reclaim houses in West Jerusalem?
  • Is it just that Palestinian houses built without permits are demolished because the Civil Administration refuses to issue building permits to Palestinians in Area C?
  • Is it just to destroy a solar power plant built with aid money because it was built without permits that Israel refuses to give?
  • Is it just to effectively annex land without making the people living there citizens?
  • Is it just to allow settlers to get away with stealing land for years?
  • Is it just to disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of Muslims in Hebron for the convenience of 400 settlers?
  • Is it just that Israelis get to use 243 liters of water per day per person, while Palestinians only get 73 liters?

This is just a small sample of the injustices in Israel today. And these are only a sampling of government sponsored and sanctioned injustices. There are also very many “private” injustices, like the rampant discrimination against non-Jews in the high-tech sector.

How are these injustices an existential threat?

The civil rights injustices are a threat in two ways:

  1. Jews living in Western Democracies in the Diaspora – especially the USA and Canada – become angry at the lack of respect and tolerance for other expressions of Judaism, such as Conservative and Reform, and become less supportive of the state of Israel. Which means not only do financial donations go down, but foreign government support goes down.
  2. Many bright and capable secular Israelis get disgusted and leave for other countries, especially America, creating a “brain drain.”

The Occupation of the West Bank (and yes, I still call it an Occupation despite the Levy Commission’s white-wash) is a threat as well:

  1. The international community is getting increasingly impatient with the Occupation; if it doesn’t end, support for BDS (boycott-divest-sanction) will grow.
  2. There are predictions that another Intifada may break out
  3. It’s used as an excuse throughout the Muslim world for inciting hatred and violence against Israelis and Jews

The Third Jewish Commonwealth will not endure long in the face of a billion Muslims if we lose legitimacy in the eyes of the West, and lose their political, financial, and military support.

But more than the “enlightened self-interest” argument – these injustices must be stopped because they are contrary to the teachings of the Torah. Our mission to the world is to be a shining beacon of righteousness: to be a light to the nations. We are dismal failures. We are not only failing to set a good example, we are well behind most Western democracies in civil rights, and we’re the only ostensibly Western democracy ruling over millions of people who are not our citizens.

If the religious people in this country were truly as concerned with building a just society as they are with only eating mehadrin meat we could make great progress in this country.

How can people who study the Talmud – and know the story about how the Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred – act in such unjust and hateful ways?

It is the month of Elul…the month before the High Holy Days, the month when we are instructed to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. No one person can solve all these problems…but it is incumbent on each of us to do what we can to make things better. Go to demonstrations, go to Women of the Wall, donate to organizations that support a more just society such as Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tselem, Hidush.

Reb Barry




Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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