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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-17:13) – The Pursuit of Justice

>One of the real joys of being a Rabbi at West London Synagogue is the opportunity to teach on Jewish Preparation (our conversion course). It is wonderful to accompany people as they embark on their Jewish journey and join our community. Through this experience I have become increasingly aware of a certain ‘Jewish vocabulary’, which we use without translation. This vocabulary involves words which we all know the meaning of, but which are completely foreign to anyone from outside the community.

The most prominent word from this group is without a doubt the word ‘Tzedakkah’. In the Jewish community we don’t talk about ‘giving charity’, we talk about ‘giving Tzedakkah’. We don’t have charity boxes or collection tins, we have Tzedakkah boxes. Throughout the High Holy Days we talk about Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakkah averting the evil decree; when we translate it we will talk about Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakkah.

Part of the reason for there not being a translation for Tzedakkah is the fact that there is no adequate translation for this word. It comes from the root tzedek, meaning justice, and so Tzedakkah is really about the pursuit of justice in this world. One way of achieving this is through charity, but it is not the only way.

This week’s Torah portion begins with an emphasis on the importance of tzedek – justice. Judges are to be appointed ‘and they shall govern the people with due justice’ (Deuteronomy 16:18). However, justice is something which is expected from all the people. The famous instruction in this week’s Torah portion is: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue it, so that you may thrive and occupy the land which Adonai your God is giving to you’ (Deuteronomy 16:20). Justice is not something which exists purely in the judicial realm, it is something which all of us must engage with and aspire to.

The repetition of the word tzedek – justice, is striking; serving to emphasise the word’s importance. However, I think that the relationship to justice is more striking. It does not instruct us to be just, it does not say create a just society, instead it says that we must pursue justice. Justice is something we aspire to, something we seek to achieve, and something which we must chase. There is an urgency and immediacy to a pursuit – we run after something, seeking to capture it and possess it. The need for a pursuit also suggests that achieving justice is neither easy, nor simple; it requires work and effort from all of us.

In a Torah portion which is called Shoftim – Judges, we are all reminded that we have a role in pursuing justice and in building a just society. We cannot rely on the courts to offer a corrective for injustice in our society; we must be active in preventing injustice, before the courts are required to intervene.

Because Tzedakkah is one of those words which we never use in translation, it is one of the first words we must teach on the Jewish Preparation course. Teaching the word is important, but pursuing its meaning is a task which can, and should, define a person’s entire Jewish journey.

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