Pursuing Justice in Word and Action, Together

This week’s Torah portion contains the powerful and clear call to justice and righteousness: “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20) We read these words after Moses implores the Israelites that once they get settled in their new home, they are to appoint judges and institute a system of justice. Law and legalism shall govern the community.

The phrase carries more weight than courts and governors, though. The Hebrew is tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, and the word here that is translated as “justice” also carries with it the meaning of “righteousness.” The justice being referred to here is not merely a system of adjudication, but a pursuit of justice in its greatest form: an equitable, fair, and compassionate community.

That is what we strive to build as Jews. The Torah has always been about more than ritual and holy days. The Torah is about justice and holy community.

As you may have seen either through congregational announcement, or the news, this week Temple Beth Hatfiloh welcomed a woman and her child into Sanctuary. After a long, deliberative process we decided last year to become a Sanctuary congregation, to be willing to join the fight for immigrant justice by engaging in action up to and including hosting someone in need of safe haven. We put into place plans and processes should the need arise.

Now, the need has arisen. Maria is an indigenous woman from Guatemala who fled terrible domestic violence to come seek asylum in this country. Her asylum claim was denied, and has sought sanctuary while a legal remedy is pursued. She desires, and we are committing to help her achieve, what it is that all of us desire: a life of safety and security for her and her child.

Since this country has closed the doors to domestic violence as a legitimate claim for asylum, we open our door as a statement of this injustice. By welcoming Maria we both seek to help one person (“One who saves one life it is as if they have saved an entire world,” says the Talmud) and attempt to affect change nationwide. By bringing attention to her case, we declare that there can be better way to treat immigrants and those who seek asylum in our shores.

It was not long ago that Jews sought asylum in these shores, and it was not long ago that restrictive policies prevented Jews from entering.

We have not taken this step lightly. Not only was deciding to become a sanctuary congregation a deliberate process, welcoming in Maria was a deliberate process. Both TBH and she had to think deeply and decide if this is right for both, before making the commitment.

It is, I will admit personally, a challenging process. While I champion this powerful act, I do so knowing that it is a lot of work on our part, and takes some risk. In a general climate in which unfortunately we need to be aware of our safety and security as a Jewish institution, to what extent have we made ourselves more vulnerable, and to what extent do we need to be even more safety conscious than we were before? These are things I am thinking about for me and for our community.

And I remind myself, and push myself, that the pursuit of justice is both saying and doing.

One of the interesting questions of this verse is, why is the word “justice” repeated? There are many ideas and comments related to this. The medieval (13-14 c.) Jewish commentator Rabbeinu Bahya offered the following commentary:

According to the plain meaning of the text the Torah warns (by repeating) that one must strive to be righteous both in word and in deed. These are the two ways in which one may potentially inflict harm upon both oneself and upon others. Everyone who speaks righteously reflects the fact that his deeds are most likely righteous also; this is why it behooves every Jew to be both righteous in his speech and in his deeds.

In other words, it is not enough to just speak of justice. One must also do justice. One must pursue justice in speech and deeds.

What I think about in reading this commentary is that those two paths are not equal. It is a lot easier to speak of justice and a lot harder to do it. Doing justice involves a lot more work, it involves a lot more energy. Oftentimes speaking of justice is comfortable, and doing justice is uncomfortable. But ultimately, it is the doing that can transform ourselves, transform others and transform society. So we must lean into the work, and the possible discomfort.

The third word of the phrase is also instructive: “pursue.” The path to justice is not always straight, or easy, or short. It is a constant process. We have started something whose end is unclear. But we commit to the process, and by doing so have the power to bring about transformation in our world, and in ourselves.

Let us travel this uncertain path together, in mutual support and mutual vision. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The doubling also means that one can not do it alone.

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