Pursuing Justice, Pursued by Love (Parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

08/21/2015 10:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A few weeks ago, I went with a friend to a prayer service and march, protesting the building of a high-pressure fracked gas pipeline through a residential neighborhood in the Boston area. Standing in a soccer field with parents, kids, and dogs, we sang songs of hope and resilience, crying out against the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure, especially when the town government itself opposes the project. Marching for a mile along the planned length of the pipeline, we waved and chanted as residents talked with us from their porches.

The event got some good press, and I did something I have never done before: I read all of the online comments on one of the articles, doing my best to follow the positions of the various posts. It was like eating a lemon straight off the rind. Words of self-righteousness, scorn, and sarcasm pervaded the comments. Everyone writing clearly cared about the issues at hand, whether they were in support of the protesters or critiquing them. But the tone was toxic, and most posters used pseudonyms or were anonymous.

The contrast was stark between my experience at the event - making eye contact with neighbors on their porches, thanking the police for keeping us safe from traffic, singing together in the field - and reading through these comments online. Gone was the sense of community and connection. I was tempted to join in the fray, to add my own snide remarks.

This week's Torah portion contains one of the most beloved and oft-quoted passages in the Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). While this verse comes in the context of setting up a court system, it has been used by Jews and others for generations to inspire and energize faith-based social justice work far beyond the walls of a courtroom.

This year, I feel a tension in these beloved words. In Jewish mysticism, tzedek, justice, is related to the left side of the mystical tree of life. It is associated with din, judgment, with its boundaries and even harshness. It is the side of the psyche that we call upon to make tough decisions, but it is also the side that when out of balance can cause unnecessary suffering. Our liturgy repeatedly asks God to deal with us not from the side of justice and judgment, but from the side of chesed, loving-kindness.

For activists and concerned citizens of all kinds, we have our own profound balancing act. On one hand, we see a country that is full of injustice. Climate change, mass incarceration of people of color, the egregious gap between the poor and the mega-wealthy, the power of money in our elections - all these and more inspire action, and demand that we stand up and say "No!" to systems that thwart the thriving of life. We experience a clarion call to disrupt "business as usual" and make sacrifices to grow our movement and make lasting change.

Yet on the other hand, if we lead only with the quality of judgment, if we pursue justice rigidly at the cost of love and civility, we risk losing track of our own hearts. All the great modern prophets of nonviolent social change, the preachers and practitioners of civil disobedience, worked not from a place of scorn or derision, but from their own broken hearts -- hearts full of love not only for the people who were hurting from injustice, but also for the people who were perpetuating it. (This is made especially poignant for us when we realize how we ourselves are often contributing to the very injustices we cry out against.)

The Netivot Shalom, a beloved 20th-century Hasidic thinker, offers a beautiful teaching on our verse. He notes that the ancient Aramaic interpretive translation of the Torah renders Deuteronomy 16:20 as "Truth, truth shall you pursue." He goes on to explain: "There is a level of truth that is about illuminating the mind and intellect. But higher than that is the level of truth of the spark of the heart, when the heart also feels that this is the truth. Then one can arrive at the level where truth pervades the whole body."

I can know in my mind that we must stop investing in fossil fuel if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming, that the endless cycles of racism in this country must be dismantled, that the power of corporations in our political system is damaging our democratic process. But if I only pursue justice with my mind, I will not sustain the loving energy of my heart. My anger at injustice will turn into scorn for the people and systems I deem at fault. I will risk losing the connection to others inherent in the eye contact and communal singing of last month's protest, turning to the "safer" anonymity of the online comments section with its harsh self-righteousness.

At a recent service during shiva in a house of mourning, I heard a resonance in Psalm 23 that I had not noticed before. Psalm 23:3 is usually rendered as "God leads me on paths of righteousness" but the word translated as righteousness is tzedek, the same word that is translated as "justice" in Deuteronomy 16:20. There we are in the psalm, on the path of tzedek, doing our best to walk and work toward justice. But then the psalm ends with this line: "Only goodness and chesed, loving-kindness, will pursue me all the days of my life"--from the same Hebrew root as in "Justice, justice you shall pursue."

We may be pursuing justice, but loving-kindness is pursuing us. As we chase after our ideals, as we rightfully cry out to help give birth to the world that we know is possible, may we also let chesed not only pursue us but catch up to us. May we let her wrap us in her fierce embrace as she opens our hearts.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

2014-06-03-Torah_Center4GlobalJudaism.jpg