Pursuing justice is harder than it sounds

Pursuing justice is harder than it sounds

Shofetim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:19

If we had a top 10 list of popular teachings from Torah, the line from this week’s Torah portion would certainly qualify. It might even make the top five.

In setting out the mechanism for the administration of courts and legal decision-making, we read the soul-stirring words from Deuteronomy 16:20, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (Justice, justice, shall you pursue). We like to think of this verse as offering the best of who we are and what we stand for.  The justice we seek is so essential to how we live that we repeat it often for effect.

The famous verse comes, not after the setting up of the courts, but after a stern warning over how easy it is to obscure justice:  “Do not incline justice, do not recognize persons or take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and overturn the words of the righteous.”  (Deuteronomy 16.19)

Justice, we are told, must be the same for rich and poor, highborn and low.  It is a concept that we honor, but frankly, in our country, the rich get far better justice.  I am not sure that America is that different from other countries in this regard, but that does not make the injustice inflicted on the poor any more palatable.

Last year I was asked to serve on jury duty, as so many of us are.  I don’t mind this one bit — you can’t have citizen juries if citizens are not willing to step up and do their part.

In Allegheny County they try to make the process simple with one clear rule:  “One day, one trial.”  That means that you wait around for one day to see if you will be picked for a jury trial.  If not, you are off the hook, probably for years, until your name comes up again.

If you are picked for a jury trial, you serve that one trial and you’re done.

Waiting around the jury pool room for hours on end, you make new friends that you would never make on your own.  People from different neighborhoods, from different races and ethnic backgrounds, liberals and conservatives, all of us drinking really bad coffee and playing with the blue pens they hand out like candy.  We talk, nod in interest at the different lives we lead and are surprised and delighted that we know someone that a total stranger knows.

By 2 p.m., we were bored stiff.  But that was when I was called into a jury room for a preliminary examination.  And they told us we were prospective jurors for a trial involving a heinous crime.  It might involve the death penalty, they said.  Could we, in good conscience, vote to apply the death penalty if the accused were found guilty?

I took a deep breath.  In my heart of hearts, I believe in a universal justice, such as the Torah commands.  I believe that murder upsets the moral calculus of the world in which we live.  So, in theory, I am in favor of it.

But then, Deuteronomy comes back to mind.  Not, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”  Rather, “You shall not recognize persons or take bribes, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and overturn the words of the righteous.”

And I thought to myself, when was the last time a really rich person was put to death in the state of Pennsylvania?  The death penalty, the ultimate sanction of the state, must be applied without regard to wealth, race or background.

So, with another big breath, I answered, “No.  I cannot in good conscience vote for the death penalty for the accused if found guilty.  Our judicial system does not apply the death penalty with equity.”  I felt very brave for stating my principle so clearly without flinching.

The lawyer in front of me did not even bother to look up.  “Next,” he said.

I returned to the jury pool room and gathered my belongings.  The person in charge waved with a big smile and said, “Catch you next time.”

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  I guess if it were easy, they wouldn’t have to command it in the Torah.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)