This week we come upon one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy 16:20 – Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and take hold of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you.
The Hebrew word translated as “justice” is tzedek, which more commonly means righteousness. We’ll consider it as righteousness in this exercise.
The issue we’ll focus on is why the word is repeated. There are dozens of beautiful and powerful explanations of this double use of words from sages, commentators, and believers all over the world. Let’s explore just one.
In this portion, Moses frequently teaches God’s way by giving us a lesson, but then immediately deepens it to make our duty clearer and fuller. My hypothesis is that the meaning of tzedek, tzedek is that there is righteousness both in the front end lesson as well as in its deepening extension. Here’s how that works.
We learn, for example, that there is righteousness in punishing idolatry and wrongdoing, but it is righteous only if it is done in accordance with strict due process.
There is righteousness in having a sovereign leader, but it is righteous only if the sovereign serves God and lives in sync with God’s disciplines.
There is righteousness in designating the Levites landless so they serve all the others, but it is righteous so long as the others give of their bounty to support the needs of the Levites.
There is righteousness in expecting witnesses to come forward and testify to evidence they have, but it is righteous so long as they suffer consequences if they give false testimony that unjustly hurts the accused.
There is righteousness in fighting a just war against a city, but it is righteous so long as one calls out first to it for peace.
Pursuing righteousness is fundamental to living a good life. It takes effort and whole intention. It especially requires humility on our part as well as balance in what we do. And, as Chasidic wisdom suggests, being righteous has a good and right beginning, but its proper effect is not achieved without demanding, continuing effort.
Tzedek, tzedek, you shall pursue.