The famous opening of the Sedra this week, to appoint judges and law enforcement officials, is followed by that very famous instruction
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
Justice, justice shall you pursue
There are many commentaries on these words. The legal framework that we were being instructed to set up would differ fundamentally from other societies. We were to have Judges, Kings, Priests and Prophets but they would all be subject to limitations. Other societies sought to reinforce secular authorities and authoritarian rule.
Judges were not to accept bribes and had to call upon more than one witness. Kings were not to have too many horses or wives. Priests would not hold land.
Prophets could not be involved in magic or divination; they could only speak in God’s name. The Greek writer Euripides wrote
none but fools believe in oracles
One of the hardest statements for us, as modern Jews, is also found in this Sedra.
וְלֹ֥א תָח֖וֹס עֵינֶ֑ךָ נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּנֶ֗פֶשׁ עַ֤יִן בְּעַ֨יִן֙ שֵׁ֣ן בְּשֵׁ֔ן
You shall not have pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth
The Chinese philosopher Confucius observed
Recompense injury with Justice
Throughout the centuries we understood that justice is a more subtle thing than retribution.
Why is the word justice repeated? Perhaps we need to understand this as requiring us to look twice at all our actions. As Jews we marched to two drums; the law of the land in which we lived and the law that we carried with us. Over the centuries, during our dispersion, we would suffer changes in the laws around us and be forced to leave but we took our beliefs, our laws and our personal responsibilities to God with us. How we apply them now that we have our own land is an ongoing work.