If you wanted a parashah that would make you think about several topics with a single reading, that is the one that summons us this week.
Parashat Shoftim has, among other themes, one of the most sadly known phrases of the Torah: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” Justice, justice you will pursue. Beyond becoming a kind of slogan for the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires and for so many other injustices around the world, the phrase itself is strange. What is the meaning of the repetition of the word “justice?” Why say it twice?
To find a possible answer, let's walk a little through the topics that the parashah talks about, or some of them.
Shoftim begins telling the establishment of courts of justice and the respect due to them even in a possible disagreement with the verdict. The story, then, takes a leap and goes on describing the obligations of the king of Israel and the limitations of his powers... and from there, another jump and change of subject: the war and the behavior that we must have even when it seems that there are no apparent limits—such as armed confrontations.
Perhaps, if we read carefully, we will see that the subjects are not as disparate as they look. The central point is to maintain justice, at all times, in all situations and from any point of view that we may have.
Being at war, and I mean here any kind of confrontation, it is easy to get out of hand. It is usual before a victory against the other, or a successful posture, to take advantage of the "defeated".
In the case of the king, the Torah is strict: “And it will be when (the king) sits on the throne of his kingdom, he will write for himself the copy of this law on a book... and it will be with him, and he will read it all the days of his life.” (Devarim 17, 18-19)
The king must have the Torah in front of him at all times. And he must remember it and remember who is above him: not only God, but those he governs. He must understand that he is a king only because there is a people to whom he owes an attitude of service and dedication.
This, which is so clear when we read it, is the easiest thing for people to forget when they reach a place of power. Be it a king, a president, a leader or any position where we feel the strange, deceptive and pleasant sensation of power. Frequently, this power is used by us, even in unnecessary cases, as a simple display of dominance or superiority.
This is so because, in general, we only become aware of our fragility and who we really are when we face pain, or tragedy, or lack. On the other hand, when divine providence—or even our own ability, why not? —shows us its best face, more often than not we get confused and feel more sovereign than we really are.
That is the connexion that Rashi makes. It is not about justice giving you a warrant for your victory in a war, whatever the “war” in which you are involved is. It is about not winning your “war” by forgetting about justice... because, if you do so…then, you will have lost. And EVERYONE else will have lost.
We are already walking through Elul. Review and reflection time. Time to see ourselves seriously inward without overlooking any fault. Time to be relentless with us, fair to the others.
Give a chance to that review to take place. Give a chance to ourselves to admit mistakes. And give a chance to those around us who recognize their own to seek for a change.
We are clearer about the process of teshuvah, of repentance, but not so clear about the process of forgiving and reconciling. And that IS also part of the search for Justice: to be able to see in others the intention of searching for a change in their lives and to give them the chance to do so.
For better relationships, in a better society, for a better world.