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A Double Portion of Tzedek

08/17/2021 03:00:07 PM


This is the D'var Torah that Cantor Fogelman offered on 8/13/2021.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof. It’s a curious phrase, with the repetition of the word Tzedek.  Justice, Justice you shall pursue. One of the most famous passages in the Torah, these words can be found in this week’s portion, Shoftim.

With the attention that the first part of the phase gets on posters, law plaques, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s book, etc. – people often forget that there’s a second part: Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God gives you. In other words, pursuing this path of justice is what paves the way towards a bright future.

We usually translate Tzedek as “Justice”, but can also refer to righteousness. We call an especially righteous person a “Tzadik.” The same root forms the word Tzedakah, which in its simplest definition defines charity. As pointed out by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the word “Tzedakah” encompasses many shades of meaning including justice; charity; righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence.  He states it certainly means more than strictly legal justice, explaining that in those cases, the Torah uses words like mishpat and din. 


But why the two Tzedeks? Why isn’t the phrase just Tzedek Tirdof? Historically speaking, each word and even each letter in the Torah is significant. As one of my teachers explains, “the bible doesn’t babble.” And Nachmonidies teaches: “Torah is perfect. It has neither a superfluous nor a missing letter, they were all written with wisdom.”

Is the repetition for the sake of emphasis? Not likely. The sentence could easily stand without the repetition. If we took out one of the Tzedeks, the sentence would read—Justice shall you pursue so that you may live.  It is felt by almost all commentators including the Talmud that this sentence alone is very strong so there is no apparent necessity to repeat the word Justice for emphasis.


On the other hand, modern scholars suggest that the repletion follows a style in which ancient texts incorporate a repeated word to form an explanation point. Remember, there is no punctuation in the Torah. Rabbi Harvey Fields notes that repeating the word Tzedek shows that Moses is underscoring the importance of pursuing justice as a means of community survival.

Also, if you take into account the fact there is no punctuation in the Torah, the repetition of Tzedek can be interpreted as verb with a doubly repeated command – Tzedek! TZEDEK! The first Tzedek an even be an adjective – the Tzedek itself could be just. Maybe it’s that it’s not enough to have justice – the justice in itself must be in the purest, most upstanding form.

Individual and Government Responsibility

Delving further, the rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent scholars have felt that the use of the word twice signifies there must be at least two types of justice to consider. Rav Ashi in Sandhedrin talks about two types of justice. One is the strict law found in the courts and the second type is that found in the streets among the common man.  He states that with just the strict law of the courts, the world cannot exist. That’s where you need the second type of justice, based on compromise. He offers a story to illustrate this point:

Two boats are headed for a narrow pass.  Both are at the same distance from the pass.  If they try to pass at the same time they will collide and sink, but if one makes way for the other, both will pass.  Strict justice says there is no reason to favor one over the other, so by law they both could just keep coming and crash.  But with compromise (both captains agreeing which boat should go first) both can pass and “justice is served.” 

The Talmud elevates the meaning of Tzedek way beyond the court of law and teaches us that we need to make compromises in our day-to-day life. The repetition is more than just emphasis. It teaches us that there are two types of justice: Strict justice and the justice of compromise. The repetition of Tzedek teaches us that when two fully justified claims clash with each other, the just solution is for the parties to find a compromise between them.

            Others argue that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of government, of judges within society, but also a mitzvah – an imperative – for each individual. Correcting the evils originated by human beings was considered the highest ethical priority. Moses’ repetition of “justice, justice” was understood to mean: “Don’t be satisfied with observing wrongdoing.  Stand up and protest against it!”


            Compromise is important, but so is consultation. Moses Maimonides suggests that the extra Tzedek emphasizes a need to reach judgements through the process of consultation, or due process. Individuals and judges should not make decisions based on their own impressions. They should discuss a case thoroughly, review it carefully, listen to varying opinions and perspectives, and reach judgments with open eyes and minds. Pursuing justice means going out of your way to make sure that you have gathered all the facts, have consulted with all the experts, and have taken no short cuts.

Popular Culture

            In popular culture, this verse inspired the title for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s posthumous book, “Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue.” Most of the time when we speak of this verse in today’s world, we modify the “Thou/Shalt” to incorporate modern language. I find it very meaningful that RBG and her editors opted to use traditional biblical language in their chosen title, representing a nod to RBG’s connection with her Jewish heritage and as a “person of the book.” In an excerpt from the book, taken from remarks that Ginsberg gave at the Genesis Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony in Tel Aviv in 2018, she describes her connection with her Jewish identity and her role as a judge. In this statement, she speaks about how threads of justice – Tzedek – are woven through both of these worlds:

“I was asked some years ago by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee (AJC) to sup­ply a state­ment on how my her­itage as a Jew and my occu­pa­tion as a judge fit togeth­er. I respond­ed this way:

I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for jus­tice, for peace, and for enlight­en­ment runs through the entire­ty of Jew­ish his­to­ry and Jew­ish tra­di­tion. I hope, in all the years I have the good for­tune to con­tin­ue serv­ing on the bench of the Supreme Court of the Unit­ed States, I will have the strength and courage to remain stead­fast in the ser­vice of that demand.”

RBG famously displayed the verse “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” in her office, explaining how the phrase connects her Jewish identity with her chose profession:

“Laws as protectors of the oppressed, the poor, the loner, is evident in the work of my Jewish predecessors on the Supreme Court,” she wrote in an essay for the AJC. “The Biblical command: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue’ is a strand that ties them together.”

And here we are, almost a year to the day of RBG’s unfortunate passing on Rosh Hashanah eve. Another name for Rosh Hashanah is “Yom HaDin” – day of Judgment. The name comes from the idea that at this season, court is in session and the One True Judge, Adonai our God, weighs our sins of the past year.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, has another name: Yom HaDin, the day of judgment. Not “Judgment Day,” as in biblical end times, but a day for being judged – the idea is that the One True Judge is weighing our sins of the past year and court is in session.

In the words of the core U’netane Tokef prayer that we say during the High Holy Day season, God is deciding who shall live and who shall die, who by violence and who by plague, but – importantly – “repentence, prayer and tzedakah avert the severity of the decree.” Tzedakah is often translated as charity, but its real meaning is “justice.” We are worthy of mercy if we work to make the world a more just place.

RBG already had a powerful legacy, but her passing on Rosh Hashanah eve will be forever linked with these words, with the importance of Tzedek. Whatever the reason for the repetition of the word in this week’s Torah portion: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: May we always be reminded of the importance of compromise, taking responsibility for our actions, and making sure we have all of the facts. These are all lessons we learn from the unusual repetition in this very important verse of Torah. May they pave the way for us to live a life of righteousness, justice, and peace for all times.

Shabbat Shalom.


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782