Shoftim: Justice, Justice

Like any good grandparent, I have seen my share of little-league baseball games. Earlier this summer, I sat through an all-day tournament of four five-inning games. Not too excited about what was happening on the playing field, I found myself slipping into a half-dozing, half-contemplative mood.

Watching the kids, from a dazzling diversity of backgrounds, playing by the rules, abiding by the umpire’s calls, and lining up to shake hands with their opponents when each match was over, it occurred to me that more than mere recreation was taking place here. Rather, by fully engaging in this quintessential American pastime, these children were learning about justice, fairness, and the resolution of conflict. And they were learning about these vital principles in a manner far more effective than any classroom lesson.

They were learning that there are rules and that one must know them and abide by them. They were learning that their own judgments could be flawed, and were subject to a higher authority to whom they had to submit, albeit not without proper protest, if the game was to proceed successfully. They were learning to compromise, to adapt, to respect others, and to acknowledge the dignity of their opponents, in victory and in defeat. No trivial lessons, these.

I soon realized that I too, and most of us who grew up in the American culture, had similar experiences. Perhaps not as regimented, certainly not as well-organized, my peers learned about justice and fairness by virtue of the games we played. Whether or not we integrated these lessons into our ultimate adult standards is another matter which depended upon a variety of circumstances far removed from the playing field.

As my philosophizing continued, and as the innings dragged on with my grandson’s team continuing its uphill struggles, I reflected on how basic was this human need for justice and fairness, and in how many ways our search for these simple principles is frustrated. I believe, along with a host of philosophers including Plato and Kant, that human beings are “programmed” to expect justice. We all have a built-in sense of what is just, and what is fair, and we are bitterly disappointed when our experiences in life do not match our expectations for justice.

A common reaction to bitter disappointment, especially expressed by the young but not absent from the adults’ response repertoire, is the plaintive cry, “It’s not fair!” We respond this way to the minor letdowns of everyday life but also to truly grievous tragedy. Those of us who have had to break bad and unexpected news to another have heard the protest, “But that’s not fair!” I know that I have heard this expressed by those who found out about the rejection of a lover, and also from those who were notified of the sudden death of someone close.

I vividly recall my father-in-law’s first encounter, while himself fleeing the advancing Nazi army, with an acquaintance who had just lost everything. This person narrowly escaped the aerial firebombing of his entire village, witnessing the instant death of his parents, wife, and children. He collapsed into the arms of my father-in-law’s father, a Chassidic rebbe, wailing, “Les din, v’les dayan!” “There is no justice, there is no judge.” In this moment of unutterable grief, he could only cry hysterically about the absence of fairness and justice in God’s world.

How wise is our Torah in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, to prescribe a thorough system of justice to be installed in “all your gates”. Justice is the primary objective of a Jewish society, although the Torah fully recognizes that it is an elusive objective indeed. It requires unstinting diligence and painstaking persistence. It requires trained, qualified, and dedicated judges, and a cooperative attitude from all members of society.

Justice is never perfect but we must always strive to approach that ideal. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, you must pursue!”

Recently, President Obama, in a context not at all irrelevant to our theme this week, quoted one of Reverend Martin Luther King’s more famous insights: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The president was applying Dr. King’s words to his response to the mass protests in Iran against the recent election there, and the regime’s repressive reaction to that protest.

I am a great fan of Dr. King and stand in awe of his eloquence. And my Jewish faith also foresees the “bend toward justice”. Hence, Isaiah 1:27: “Zion will be redeemed through Justice and by those who return to her in Righteousness.”

But there is an aspect to the Jewish vision of justice which is much too impatient to passively await the curve of that long arc. This week’s Torah portion insists on the urgency of justice and the necessity to implement it swiftly and comprehensively.

Two of our weekly Torah portions, Mishpatim and Shoftim, are named for justice, and a full quarter of our Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat, mandates its thorough implementation.

Yes, we believe that the course of history, ultimately divinely-guided, bends ever so slowly towards justice, but it is our responsibility to exert every human effort to hasten the pace of that course.