Parshat Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12.
If I were to choose a phrase from this week’s portion that is most well-known, it would be Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof (Deuteronomy 16:20a).
These words have been understood in many ways. Rashi translates tzedek as “justice.” In this context, the words mean, “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue” and refers to the idea that we should pursue reliable courts that won’t be swayed by friendships, promises, political pressure or even bribes, but by the merits of each individual case.
The world of Jewish social justice often translates tzedek as “righteousness.” It became the mantra as they translated the phrase as “Righteousness, Righteousness, Shall You Pursue.”
A third explanation comes from Rabbi Elliot Dorff who taught that “tzedek means that we must ensure that everyone gets at least the minimum of what is necessary to live. It means teaching about fundamental human rights, which every person should enjoy. This form of righteousness means believing in the fundamental equality of all people … that we are all equal regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or economic situation.”
But what’s the tirdof? What does it mean that we pursue righteousness? How do we do that?
A true story demonstrates how. The story is about a woman we’ll call Elyse. Everything was going right for her. Suddenly, she lost her job and house and found herself living out of a truck. Child Protective Services threatened to take her son if she didn’t find a safe place.
With the help of a generous social worker, the first few nights of a hotel stay were paid for. And then Curtis showed up, demonstrating what it means to pursue righteousness. Every day, he would pay Elyse’s hotel bill and had been doing so for months when the story was published. Homeless himself, Curtis Jackson panhandled daily until he had enough money for food and to pay for Elyse’s room.
When asked why he did it, he responded, “I’m out here for a purpose,” he said, “to help someone; and that’s all I’m trying to do, is help someone that needs help, right at this moment.” That’s tzedek, that’s righteousness. What he says next, that’s tirdof, pursuing it. Curtis said, “And once she doesn’t need help anymore, I’ll move on to helping someone else.”
Pursuing righteousness means not just waiting for an opportunity to fall into your lap … it means looking for opportunities.
Every day, we’re supposed to seek and find who we’re supposed to help until that injustice is fixed or we can’t help anymore. And then, when that time comes, we go on to find the next.
Rabbi Daniel A. Schwartz is a rabbi at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.