Parashat Shoftim deals largely with the theme of justice and its administration. The Torah establishes limits to the power of judges, kings, priests, and prophets and — by making these limits public — makes it clear than the people have a role in the supervision and criticism of human authorities. Only God has absolute authority; all human beings — king, high priest, and ordinary Israelite alike — must live by God’s laws.
And near the beginning of our parasha, we find one of the Torah’s most frequently quoted verses: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”). I’ve seen it on posters and on T-shirts, in fund-raising appeals and in full-page ads in The New York Times. The Torah repeatedly stresses the importance of creating a just society.
Of course, the Rabbis believe that every word, indeed every letter, of the Torah was given by God for a purpose and so they ask, why does the Torah say “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — why is the word “justice” repeated?
Many answers are proposed. The chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa says that the Torah is telling us that we are to pursue justice justly — that is, the ends do not justify the means.
And in the Gemara in Sanhedrin, Rav Ashi offers this explanation:
The first “tzedek” refers to a decision based on strict law, the second to a compromise. How so? When two boats sailing on a river [in opposite directions] meet, if both attempt to pass simultaneously [they will collide] and both will sink; whereas, if one makes way for the other, both can pass [safely]…. How, then, should they act? If one is laden and the other is not laden, the latter should give way to the former. If one is nearer [to its destination] than the other, the former should give way to the latter. This is the strict — that is settled — law. If both are [equally] near or far, make a compromise between them, with the one which is to go first compensating the other.
It sounds perfectly reasonable — but sometimes you encounter a situation that doesn’t fit the rules. I’ve always wondered about this: When you come to a four-way stop sign, the rule is that the car on the right goes first — but what do you do when four cars arrive at the same time?
And with regard to the Gemara’s example of the boats, this purports to be the transcript of a radio conversation of a U.S. naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1995:
• Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.
• Canadians: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
• Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
• Canadians: No, I say again, you divert your course.
• Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
• Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — strict law along with intelligent compromise.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.