“Justice, justice shall you pursue”. We’ve heard these words often and they are considered to be a righteous way to live. They are quoted and inscribed in many places and documents including a picture that hangs in the office of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This is an interesting aphorism. What does it really mean? It almost seems superfluous to comment, but in this day and age, it is very necessary.
First of all, the word “Justice” is repeated. In biblical Hebrew, the repetition of a word is like putting the adverb “very” in front. It is also used to highlight and emphasize the word.
The fact that Moshe Rabbeinu is just now (in the last book of Deuteronomy) saying this to the new generation of Israelites is timely and profound. These are the people that will conquer and settle the promised land and setting up an equitable system of courts is very important.
You see, it is human nature, we with our imperfect nervous systems, to want to come out ahead. Yes, we’ve approached this concept before in the way of not putting a stumbling block in front of the blind and being honest in your weights and measures. So what if it’s not exact and little off, it won’t make a big difference and the other guy won’t even notice. The bottom line, though, is that pennies add up, don’t they?
Some say that responsibility is doing what’s right even when there’s no one around to see you. “Justice, justice shall you follow”. The more we do it, the more it becomes part of who we are.
These days, we see what happens when you don’t. Recently, a Congressman had to resign because he is being investigated for insider trading. We’ve also seen news headlines of public officials in the higher echelons of government taking advantage of their positions to make money or hiding business deals so as to not expose these dealings to taxes or ethics scrutiny.
Judaism has a more stringent policy. Kings were required to write two copies of the Torah, one for their own personal use and one for the Temple library. In other words, not only were the highest officials in government not exempt from the law, but they had to set an example.
In our own lives, we have to be careful to do the right thing. We leave a store with more change than to which we’re entitled. The right thing is to go back and give the extra back. Some will say, well, they’re a store, a big store and they won’t miss it. No. People are entitled to fair and honest dealings and it is not just a choice, but an obligation.
Some people will look around the world and say that everyone does it. Look at how some leaders around the world subject their citizens to the worst horrors of war and poverty while they live a rich, opulent life. Everyone does it, why should we be different? Why should we get cheated just because we’re honest?
Some people feel that the idea of divine justice is just appeasement. Some people complain that they’ve been straight all their lives and never got a break. Some people complain that they’ve been the victims so maybe it’s time to be the aggressor. Dog eat dog and all that. (Subject of another sermon).
No. There will always come a time in our lives when we’re given the opportunity to do the right thing and we don’t. Then it comes back to haunt us. We see that one time that someone gets hurt by our insolence and then our guilt comes crashing down on us.
Yes, it’s tough being honest in a world where everyone looks to get an edge. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe our mettle is being tested. Like the laws of Kashrut, we are shown temptation and then given an opportunity to do the right thing, to avoid cheating people. Tempting, yes. But the wrong course of action.
Maybe it’s like exercise. The more you do, the stronger you get. This doesn’t just go for muscles, but ethics as well. We set a standard for ourselves to do the right thing. As time goes, we learn how to navigate that ocean. Perhaps we’ve made a habit of dealing with the wrong people and this cheating is a wake-up call to change our ways.