Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
How does the Torah define perversion? When the law becomes deviant.
How often do you hear politicians and lobbyist groups talking about uprooting perversion in our country? It is a chorus that is ringing all over the world as people begin to feel social and economic turmoil. People are once again being singled out by the state, being blamed for destroying the moral and cultural fabric of a nation. For many of us Jews, to see state-sponsored persecution abound is something traumatic after the experiences of the Shoah – the holocaust of World War II. How can we respond to this?
It is true that the Torah does charge us with a call for holiness and purity, and also to do away with foreign ways and false religion. But it also charges us with justice and righteousness. So important is this charge that the discussion of holiness and Temple worship is temporarily suspended in this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) to talk about setting up the courts of justice in a simple three verse clause (see Deut. 16:18-20).
At all the gates court is to be held by shoftim – judges, magistrates – who are to hand down mishpat tzedek – just rulings, or righteous judgment as some people poetically say.
As previously discussed (see Parshat Shoftim 2011), we are told to not twist (or bend) judgment (lo-tateh mishpat), nor show favoritism; nor are we to take a bribe, as that blinds the eyes of the wise. Then it continues with the words, “v’sulaf divrei tzedek / and you shall not pervert words of justice.” (see Deut. 16:19)
From this perspective we need to think differently about who we call perverts, and whom we call bent or twisted.
I call this to our attention because we all know the next words of the Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (see Deut. 16:20) One might ask themselves why we are told to radaf – to pursue, to run after justice and righteousness. The reason is obviously because justice if often hard to grasp, and can often elude us. Yes, we are to chase down justice. However it means something more still. To radaf means to seek something with persistence; hauntingly, annoyingly, to trouble someone until justice is met. Most of us are annoying people already, if only we would use it for a righteous purpose!
How can we do that? By opposing policies and regimes which pervert words of justice (v’sulaf divrei tzedek). By actively opposing those who warp the legal system which meant to set policy for the betterment of all people, and instead turn the law into an element of oppression. Those which exchange words of righteousness for words of persecution.
Now I want to remind us that this is all talked about in the context of not showing favoritism nor taking bribes. We are instead instructed to continue to pursue justice in the face of this. Why must we pursue it? For what reason do we have to chase after it?
It’s because sometimes justice is not something easily attained. Sometimes there is all kinds of bribery, or as in our society this most often displayed as a flagrant use of corporate influence. We are not to give in to this ourselves, but keep bringing up “divrei” – not just mere words; this also quite literally means “cases” or “matters” or “legal opinions.” We continue to annoyingly raise these issues in the public square and in the courts until justice is met.
I want to point out that this text does not just speak to the judges, it speaks to us all by stating “you shall not bend judgment.” Or as most often stated, “you shall not pervert judgment.” It calls us all to look at ourselves and ask ourselves; have we become distorted, deviated and twisted in our own sense of justice? Are we negatively using our influence to harm others, or are we actively pursuing true justice?
- Parshat Shoftim (2011)
- Parshat KiTeitzei (2011)
- Parshat Eikev (2013)
- Parshat Eikev (2012)
- Parshat Eikev (2011)