D’var Torah: Parshat Shoftim – Striving for Justice in Issues Large and Small
Albert Einstein said, “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.” This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, states, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive . . .” (Devarim 16:20) The verse’s repetition of the word “tzedek” (justice) is frequently commented on, as words in the Torah are not believed to be repeated without reason. One way to interpret this is to view Judaism’s pursuit of justice as including three elements: who, how and why.
Einstein’s take on justice centers on the “who” – that justice is about the treatment of people. He realizes that justice and truth need to be pursued in all cases – from small to large. When we allow injustice to happen, even with trivial consequences, we sow the seeds for greater injustice to take root. Over time we accustom ourselves to allowing bigger and bigger injustices to go unremedied.
Later in the parsha, the Torah explains how justice should be pursued by listing persons exempt from fighting in wars. This is a great proof text on Einstein’s assertion that there is no difference between large and small problems. The Torah instructs us that even on the eve of a battle for the existence of our nation, we require our leaders to exempt those who are engaged but not married, those who have planted a vineyard and not eaten its fruits, and those who have built a house and have not dedicated it. Justice allows each person to literally and figuratively eat of his labors. A society that protects individual justice even in times of national crisis stands on firm footing.
Why is the pursuit of justice so important? The verse continues, “in order that you may thrive.” A just society endures while injustice eventually brings about its own demise. The parsha continues to instruct that when you besiege a city, you may not cut down the fruit trees around it. The Torah asks, “Is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you?” First, simply, we must understand who we are fighting – surely not the trees. But second, by being just to the trees we are effectively securing our own future. Cutting down all the trees may be expedient, but it is not only unjust, it is shortsighted. By destroying the trees we destroy our future ability to live in that place. This is a clear statement of our responsibility to intelligently preserve our environment.
Every day at Camp Ramah we have the opportunity to practice Einstein’s teaching that the treatment of people is central to our understanding of truth and justice. Here, we strive to embody the Torah’s belief in justice in issues great and small, for people and for the environment, in order that we may thrive individually and as a society.