Parshas Shoftim #1
“Justice, justice pursue, in order that you will live and take possession of the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you” (Devarim 16:20).
A halachic court system to uphold justice is a fundamental of Jewish society. In his review of the Torah before his death, Moshe Rabbeinu taught the Jewish people about this basic requirement for a nation living in their homeland, exhorting them to “pursue tzedek.”
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch writes that the pursuit of tzedek above all should be the Jewish people’s highest objective: personally and as a nation, we should strive for tzedek for its own sake, free of any other considerations.
What is tzedek? It can mean justice, honesty, or truth. Rav Hirsch defines the lofty goal of tzedek as the establishment of all human relationships, both individual and communal, on the foundations of the Torah. This ongoing obligation is the basis of Jewish society; it is the primary condition for our continued existence, physical (“and you will live”) and national (“and you will take possession of the land”). All else should be subordinate to tzedek.
Proper or Popular?
The pursuit of tzedek is not always easy or popular, but it is right, and it is our duty as Jews. I learned a lifelong lesson in tzedek from my twelfth-grade Gemara rebbe, Rabbi Zvi Teichman.
It was 1988, and I was a high school senior. To my good fortune, I was one of twelve students selected that year for the school’s beis medrash program. We had top rebbeim and an excellent curriculum, and it was a great year for us. However… there was another privilege traditionally enjoyed by all high school seniors in Los Angeles, which was not exactly in line with the beis medrash program: Disneyland’s “Grad Night.”
At the end of the school year Disneyland would open after hours on a few selected nights, exclusively for graduating seniors. Students would arrive formally dressed, on buses organized by their school and accompanied by chaperones. The evening out included the famous Disneyland rides, dancing, and socializing. The assumption was that the yeshivah kids would know to stay away from inappropriate activities.
Los Angeles tradition or not, Rabbi Teichman would not hear of his talmidim attending such an event. He understood that it would not be enough just to tell us not to go. Instead he decided on an innovative final exam for our class, scheduled to begin at 11 p.m., just as Disneyland opened its gates on Grad Night. Each of us would prepare an amud of Gemara, and spend half an hour teaching it to our classmates. Those six hours in the beis medrash would keep us safely away from the all-night partying at Disneyland. There would be no makeup test – anyone who did not come in for the final would fail the course.
Rabbi Teichman’s decision was not very well received. In particular, a few students and their parents subjected him to a great deal of pressure. They insisted that he give the final on a different night, but Rabbi Teichman stood his ground. Ten of us came in for the final. The other two went to Disneyland and failed the course.
I actually learned not one, but two lessons from this story. The first was tzedek tzedek tirdof as taught by Rav Hirsch: Rabbi Teichman knew what was right for his students and that was all that mattered, even in the face of unpleasant opposition. The second was that in the long run, I have no doubt that the ten boys at the final don’t regret the time they spent learning Gemara that night.
(After graduation, I did not see Rabbi Teichman until he visited Israel in 2015. He was our guest on Shabbos Parshas Shoftim. I related this devar Torah at the Shabbos table, along with the story of “my twelfth-grade rebbe” who had the strength to stand up against Grad Night – and then introduced Rabbi Teichman in person to everyone at the table.)
Question for Discussion:
At times we are faced with the choice of actively standing up and fighting for tzedek, or keeping quiet and following the crowd. When and how did you cope with this dilemma, and do you regret your decision?Click Here To Respond
Two of our regular Shabbos guests said that this was the most difficult question ever raised at our Shabbos table discussions, and they may well have been right…
Our fifteen-year-old daughter related that she met with some friends from elementary school during summer vacation, and the conversation drifted into lashon hara. She reminded her friends that this was forbidden talk, asked them to change the subject – and they listened.
Mendel from Brooklyn had been in a similar situation. He had not asked his friends to stop, but he personally did not participate in that part of the conversation.
Did either of them regret their decision? Our daughter did not; she was glad that her intervention had curtailed the gossip. Mendel, on the other hand, was sorry that he had not spoken up – had he tried, he too might have been able to prevent the lashon hara.
“Chaim” from Riverdale, New York, recalled a time when he chose to take the initiative and protest: We lived in Manhattan, and what we were seeing in the streets, especially in the summer, was enough to make us want to move. The contrast between going to shul and the immodest garb of the people we encountered on the way could not have been greater. Then a “Victoria’s Secret” outlet opened right on our block. The vulgar displays in the window made even a simple neighborhood shopping expedition distasteful.
I had two options: I could either take a stand and protest against the indecent window displays, or choose the easy way out and do nothing. Our conclusion was that even lacking sufficient support, we should attempt to speak up, and we organized a protest. Unfortunately it was not very effective, but at least a public statement was made. For us personally, this incident was the deciding factor: soon after, we relocated to Riverdale, a much better community for our family.
Rebecca from Mexico City described a very painful dilemma: A dear friend was suffering from a terminal illness. Her family was in denial, unable to acknowledge that she had little time left. I very much wanted to say viduy (confession) with her but I knew that her relatives would not allow it, and there was always someone with her in the room.
One day things looked very bad, and a doctor asked the family to step out of the patient’s room to discuss a medical issue. I had a siddur with me, and as soon as they left I took the opportunity to say viduy with my friend. Only four hours later, she was gone. I never told her family about the viduy, but I know that I did the right thing for her.