Devarim Comments Off 73

pursuing justice

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord is giving you” (Devarim XVI:20)

Moses’ call to the judges of Israel in this week’s reading: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” is rightly famous. Less well known, however, is the continuation of the sentence: “… in order that you may live and inherit the land”.   Strikingly, according to Moses, our security in our land is not dependent on our military might or our strategic capabilities, but on the moral quality of the society that we establish.

The approach suggested by Moses goes against the common practice of states.  Indeed, it is in times of national insecurity that justice is most likely to come under threat or be compromised, as security threats become justifications for the infringement of liberties. But Moses takes pains to remind us that in fact the greatest risk to our society is internal: when we begin compromising on justice itself. As the 15th century Italian commentator Ovadiah Sforno comments on this verse: “There is no greater danger to the stability of national life than injustice.”

In today’s world, most claims to sovereignty over territory are framed in terms of rights. This verse offers an alternative approach, in which our right to live on our land derives not from our rights, but from the fulfillment of our obligation to build a society based on justice.

In seeking to create the ideal of a just society, the unusual wording of the sentence “Justice, justice shall you pursue” has led commentators to offer some interesting insights on the way in which we can work to achieve justice:

  • An ideal to be pursued: The 19th-century Hassidic commentator, Sefat Emet, focuses on the unusual word “pursue”. Moses’ command is not to achieve or create justice, but to pursue it. The reason, he suggests, is that as an absolute ideal, justice is elusive and unattainable. But that the fact that perfect justice cannot achieve can never be an excuse for us not to pursue it.
  • Justice in both ends and means:  A number of contemporary scholars, among them Rabbis Elya Meir Bloch and Simcha Bunem, have noted the curious repetition of the work “justice” (justice justice shall you pursue) and interpret this to mean that “the pursuit of righteousness must itself be pursued with righteousness.  We are not merely being taught to run after justice. We are told to run after justice with justice.  In other words just ends, however highly regarded, can never justify unjust means.
  • Two types of justice – absolute and compromise:  The Talmud sees the repetition of the word “justice” as signifying that there, are, in fact, two types of justice; the first based on strict law, the second based on compromise. The Talmud goes on to give a number of examples:


It has been taught: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. The first mention of justice refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. How so? Where two boats sailing on a river meet, if both attempt to pass simultaneously both will sink. However, if one makes way for the other, both can pass without mishap. Likewise, if two camels met each other while on a high mountain path, if they both ascend at the same time both may fall, but if they ascend after each other, both can go up safely.

Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 32b


While we may not be sailors or camel-riders, the situations described here are familiar to anyone who has driven down a narrow Israeli road, or pushed a cart down a supermarket aisle, and met another driver or cartpusher coming the other way.  The accommodating approach suggested by the Talmud is probably less familiar. But this too, the Talmud argues, is a kind of justice.

In others’ words

“The power of society to stand up against its enemies is based on its recognition that it is fighting for values that deserve protection. The rule of law is one of these values.”

Chief Justice Aharon Barak, High Court of Justice Decision 168/1991 Morcos v. Minister of Defense

On a lighter note

Chaim, a small time businessman, was being sued by a major corporation. If he lost the case his business would never recover. He asked his friend Abe for advice.

“Why don’t you bribe the judge to decide in your favour?” suggested Abe.

The idea shocked Chaim, but the more he thought about it, the more it seemed that he had no choice. So late one night he went to the judge’s house and offered him $10,000 to decide the case in his favour.  The judge, to Chaim’s amazement, agreed to the offer, and took the money.

On the day of the judgment, Chaim went confidently to court. But he was not aware that the judge had been given an even bigger bribe by the other side, and was shocked when he heard the judge decide in their favour.

Late that night, Chaim went back to the judge and confronted him: “You took my money!” he exploded. “How could you decide against me!?”

“But don’t you understand” smiled the judge calmingly. “I wrote my judgment so that you will win on appeal!”

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