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The Search for Reasons and Meanings

The rabbis assumed that the text of the Torah was perfect so that any apparent discrepancy or repetition or contradiction had to be there for a reason. and it was up to us to impute a reason and formulate the lesson that it teaches. They also assumed that each sentence in the Torah had an infinite number of lessons to teach us. Both assumptions require us to bring imagination to bear on textual problems, and so they have proved to be extremely productive in the long history of rabbinic interpretation.

In this week’s portion, Shofetim, we have the well-known repetition of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shall you follow, that thou mayest live and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Why is the word “justice” repeated?

The most direct method of interpretation is translation. Modern translations often kill the tenor of the text with well-meaning and no doubt scholarly literalness. Everett Fox, for example, has produced a translation of the Torah that usually offers great insight, but here it gives us: “Equity, equity you are to pursue.” I have no knowledge of the world of high finance and, judging from the miserable showing of my investments, the repetition (which I take personally) is telling me to look more carefully at the equities I choose in pursuit of greater equity.

The translation of the Jewish Publication Society gives us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Here we have, in comparison with the old 1917 translation of JPS that I quoted above, “occupy” instead of “inherit.” This translation leads me to conclude that the second use of the word “justice” is to remind us that there can be different versions of justice, such as those of the Supreme Court of Israel and the International Court at the Hague in their decisions on the Israeli West Bank security barrier, not to mention more extreme differences over the justice of the occupation of the land we inherit.

Another method of interpretation is to use a “proof-text” to help us understand the passage. Rabbinic proof-texts usually were taken from books in the Tanakh far away from the problem text. For example, Psalm 33, referring to God in verse 5, says: “He loveth righteousness and justice.” Applying this distinction to our problem text, we can interpret the repetition of the word justice as a reminder to us that, although both righteousness and justice are to be loved, it is justice, not righteousness, that is to be pursued if we are to live, and thrive in, the land we inherit and occupy.

Another interpretation, Isaiah 1:17, tells us: “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed.” There are two ways of understanding this. Either a distinction is being made between justice and the relief of the oppressed, or we are being told that justice entails the relief of the oppressed. But justice is a right of the rich as well as of the oppressed, and so I favor the former view. And so, for me, the repetition of justice in our text tells us that although we should relieve the oppressed, it is justice we should pursue in order to live in the land we inherit and occupy.

Another interpretation, Amos 6:12, referring to those who say “have we not taken… by our own strength?” has this warning:

…ye have turned justice into gall, And the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.

The repetition in Deuteronomy gives heavy emphasis to justice if we are to live and thrive in the land we inherit and occupy, but Amos warns us not to turn justice bitter even if we have the strength to do so.

And Exodus 23:2 gives us more elaborate warnings in the form of commandments:

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to per-vert justice; neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause.

The injunction not to favor the poor in the pursuit of justice is one of the great moral commandments of the Torah, as is the notion that a multitude, presumably even if it is a majority, should not be followed if it is a perversion of justice to do so. “Justice, justice shalt thou follow.” The repetition is to warn us that justice isn’t easy to discern or practice, particularly if we are to pursue it in order to live and thrive in the land we inherit and occupy.

David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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