“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.”
Many of us are routinely inundated, especially of late, with essay links, Facebook posts, tweets, and webinar advertisements focused on variations on the theme of justice: racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice, criminal justice reform, housing justice, reproductive justice and more. We are exhorted to advocate for issues that matter to us and to elect leaders who will work towards our ideal of a just society. Regardless of partisan persuasions, we each have an obligation, we are told, to invest ourselves in the perennial pursuit to achieve a more just world.
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, centers justice as a foundational precept for the Israelite nation, a platform that will carry them into peoplehood. It includes directives on how justice is to be administered through the formation of a judicial system, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to punishment. While some of the statements feel harsh and unyielding to a modern reader, such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” a deeper understanding of the text is that in just societies, the punishment fits the crime. Justice happens when people are treated fairly within society’s systems and are given opportunities for growth and change.
Justice does not happen on its own, but rather is realized through the combined effort of people who realize its importance. These past months have been a painful reminder that for too many, justice remains elusive and is seldom fully realized. This profound shortcoming in our nation is at the core of JCRC’s advocacy work in our region. Whether it is testifying before a local school board about educational equity, ensuring that Jewish students are treated fairly when they miss school for religious observances, or speaking with lawmakers about the dire need to protect tenants’ rights and prevent mass evictions, the JCRC is dedicated to ensuring that our elected officials are committed to governing with justice. As Moses’ brother Aaron knew, it is not merely enough to passively support the idea of justice: it must be vigorously pursued. And, even as it remains frustratingly beyond our grasp, we must chase it even harder. Doing so is both a Jewish ideal and a civic necessity.