By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Like any good grandparent, I have seen my share of little-league baseball games. Watching the kids from a diversity of backgrounds playing by the rules, abiding by the umpire’s calls, and lining up to shake hands with their opponents when each match was over, it occurred to me that more than mere recreation was taking place here. Rather, by fully engaging in this quintessential American pastime, these children were learning about justice, fairness, and the resolution of conflict.
They were learning that there are rules and that one must know them and abide by them. They were learning that their own judgments could be flawed, and were subject to a higher authority to whom they had to submit, albeit not without proper protest. They were learning to compromise, to adapt, to respect others, and to acknowledge the dignity of their opponents, in victory and in defeat.
I soon realized that I too, and most of us who grew up in the American culture, had similar experiences. My peers learned about justice and fairness by virtue of the games we played. Whether or not we integrated these lessons into our ultimate adult standards is another matter that depended upon a variety of circumstances far removed from the playing field.
I believe, along with a host of philosophers including Plato and Kant, that human beings are “programmed” to expect justice. We all have a built-in sense of what is just, and what is fair, and we are bitterly disappointed when our experiences in life do not match our expectations for justice.
A common reaction to bitter disappointment, especially expressed by the young but not absent from the adults’ response repertoire, is the plaintive cry, “It’s not fair!”
My father-in-law, while himself fleeing the advancing Nazi army, encountered an acquaintance who had just lost everything. This person narrowly escaped the aerial firebombing of his entire village, witnessing the instant death of his parents, wife, and children. He collapsed into the arms of my father-in-law’s father, a Chassidic rebbe, wailing, “Les din, v’les dayan!” “There is no justice, there is no judge.” In this moment of unutterable grief, he could only cry hysterically about the absence of fairness and justice in God’s world.
How wise is our Torah in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, to prescribe a thorough system of justice to be installed in “all your gates.” Justice is the primary objective of a Jewish society, although the Torah fully recognizes that it is an elusive objective indeed. It requires unstinting diligence and painstaking persistence. It requires trained, qualified, and dedicated judges, and a cooperative attitude from all members of society.
Justice is never perfect but must ever strive to approach that ideal. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice, you must pursue!”
I refer you to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s more famous insights: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” My Jewish faith also foresees the “bend toward justice.” Hence, Isaiah 1:27: “Zion will be redeemed through Justice and by those who return to her in Righteousness.”
But there is an aspect to the Jewish vision of justice that is much too impatient to passively await the curve of that long arc. This week’s Torah portion insists on the urgency of justice and the necessity to implement it swiftly and comprehensively.
Two of our weekly Torah portions, Mishpatim and Shoftim, are named for justice, and a full quarter of our Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat, mandates its thorough implementation.
Yes, we believe that the course of history bends ever so slowly towards justice, but we must exert every human effort to hasten the pace of that course.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive VP emeritus of the OU.