5764 - #34

Ki Teitzei


    Devarim 21:10-25:19, Parshat Ki Teitzei, presents a compilation of various commandments on a range of subjects.1 The text seems to indiscriminately jump between precepts of social justice2 and ritual3 without any change of tone or other indication of distinction. In fact, while reading this parsha it is easy to become confused over which laws fall into which category. At first glance this could present a degree of risk. The laws which otherwise would be entirely valued by us for their intelligent social benefits -- and, as such, demand such focus -- can become shadowed with a blur of ritual which removes them from their long-term goals. On the other hand, laws which could be valued as ritual can become confused with justice and, as such, we can forget the inherent importance their connection with God gives to them. The outcome is an attempt at ritualistic justice and just ritual which end up having neither the clearness nor the spirituality that we require of justice and ritual respectively. This parsha begins to resemble something unsure of itself, a confused identity hiding behind strong language.
Of course it must be remembered the religious understanding of justice is vastly different than the secular, from the start. From the perspective of a modern, utilitarian society, the only value presented by a just society is the resultant harmony, or other desired state, that will reverberate throughout that society due to the 'just' act. The value of justice is extrinsic. Religiously, however, justice is valued based on the assumption that it is the prescribed direction given to us by God, it is in fact considered to be a declaration of that which God desires. On one level, the difference between religious justice and ritual is practically non-existent. In both cases it is the act in and of itself which is considered. The values of religious justice are intrinsic.
     And yet, only a few verses earlier, Devarim 16:20 told us: "Tzedek, tzedek [justice, justice4 or 'the right, the right'5] you shall follow, so that you may live and inherit the land which Hashem your God gave to you." Tzedek is given a value based on its outcome: life and inheritance qualify what is righteous to be right. This connection is deeper than a simple reward and punishment

situation. Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, Devarim 16:20 writes: "Our teachers ... brand the perversion of the course of justice as the most alarming sign of national decay." Again, we encounter a value of justice that is extrinsic.
Even within Torah, two distinct definitions of righteousness are possible. In one, a righteous person is the person who considers the outcome of his/her action. In the other, the righteous person is guided by the moment and considers the propriety or impropriety of the exact act they are about to perform. The righteous person is one who not only follows the law of his society but is an example of one who embodies its overall message. Which definition should we honor?
    T.B. Sanhedrin 32b suggests both. "'Tzedek, Tzedek shall you pursue' - one refers to din [justice], one to peshara [compromise]." In the gemora, din refers to cases where a prescribed means of dealing with the conflict is available and applied, and, while greater justice is served, one of the individuals in the case suffers the loss. Peshara refers to cases where the word 'right and wrong' might not be easily applied; the outcome, however, is one in which loss is distributed between both parties. Rabbi Hertz writes: "In the eyes of the prophets, justice was a Divine, irresistible force. Isaiah, for example, uses only one word (tzedek) to designate both 'justice' and 'victory' (i.e. The triumph of right in the world)." Having Justice in the world is to what we aspire. But for the other corner, Rabbi Hertz also writes: "However, justice is more than mere abstention from injuring our fellowmen. 'The work of justice is peace; and the effects thereof quietness and confidence forever.’ (Isa XXXII 17). It is a positive conception and includes charity, philanthropy, and every endeavour to bring out what is highest and best in others.... Such being the Jewish understanding of Justice (tzedek) it is but natural that in later Hebrew that same word came to denote 'charity' exclusively." Tzedek, as charity, is the opposite of the presentation of justice as victory. Charity, in fact, is something we are warned against when administrating justice. "Nor shall you favour a poor man in his cause.6 "
    It is very common in Judaism for two diverse values to be presented and endowed upon us, leaving us with the dedicated task of prioritization. The conflict of din verses peshara certainly falls into that category. But I believe this case is more than that. A single word, tzedek, embodies both dueling spirits. Even as this one word collides in itself, there still must be a common uniting link. If din represents intrinsic value and peshara represents extrinsic value, the question can still be asked: what is this value? The answer in both cases is tzedek, righteousness. We begin and end with righteousness. We use righteousness in the moment and we aspire to righteousness in the future. In a sense we recognize the whole vastness of existence both linearly up to God and horizontally, out into time. Every action exists as the full essence and definition of the present and every action exists as a step onto something else. We do put emphasis on the end but we do not allow just any means. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Devarim 16:20 explains our gemora as follows: "...every judicial action even if it is not to make a decision but only to arrange a compromise must be guided entirely by impartiality." A standard remains even when the result is paramount.
    From this point of view the combining of both ritual and social justice commandments in the Parshat Ki Teitzei is not confusing or diminishing. They are different,7 and if we forget this, we run the risk of forgetting the details among the grand scheme. But they are not to be looked at as serving entirely different purposes either. Ritual, a means to self-perfection, allows for there to be a base from which to grow a great society. A great society, founded on proper legal procedures, is nothing if it does not provide security for those involved in the importance of their private individual lives. This very second, right now is everything. And in a second, when that is no longer true, be cautious that it remain something.

Tikva Hecht

1 Shemot 21:1-24:18, Parshat Mishpatim, is another example of such diverse presentation.

2 We could also refer to such laws as bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and man.

3 The term ritual is used for want of a better English word. We could also refer to such laws as bein adam l'Makom, between man and God.

4 As translated in the linear translation published by S.S.&R. Publishing Company, Inc.

5 As translated in the English presentation of the Hirsch chumash.

6 Shemot 23:3.

7 The distinction between bein adam l'chaveiro and bein adam l'Makom can even have halachic consequences. See, for example, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:5.

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