Drash on Parashat Shoftim 2019
Rabbi David Kunin
Jewish Community of Japan
Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue
Our tradition teaches us that emulation of the Divine (imitatio Dei) is the essence of holiness. Such emulation is always a challenge, yet perhaps no more so than when we aim to be a tzaddik (a righteous person). Righteousness is most often understood as avoidance from sin, building on its root meaning of justice. Yet, this understanding only scratches the surface. There is much more to righteousness than the ability to judge others or ourselves or to avoid sin.
Psalms 145 (“The Eternal is righteous (tzaddik) in all that is done, gracious (hasid) in all works”) connecting righteousness (absolute justice) and graciousness (absolute kindness) provides a more nuanced understanding of the requirements of a true tzaddik and is therefore indicative of the challenge in actualization. Taken separately living up to either of these values is difficult but surmountable, but when we try to live by both simultaneously it is exponentially harder. The absolutes of judgment and kindness rarely fit together in the human lexicon of action.
Biblical figures can be exemplars of the differing modes of the Tzaddik, “righteous person.” Noah is denoted as only “a righteous man in his generation,” (rather than as “righteous” without qualifier) because while he followed God’s commands (concerning ark and animals) without deviation, he failed to show kindness as he allowed the rest of humanity to drown. Abraham is, however, seen as an exemplar of a true Tzaddik, as he balances absolute righteousness and kindness, pleading with God to save cities full of people, demanding “the God of justice, show justice.”
We often look to great rabbis and leaders as the tzaddikim (the righteous people) of a generation. It may be, however, we are looking in the wrong places. The Talmud teaches that thirty-six (double-chai) righteous people uphold the world. Perhaps remembering another Talmudic legend hiding the Messiah among the beggars and lepers of Rome, these thirty-six became known as hidden tzaddikim. Jews and gentiles, men and women, their deeds of righteousness and kindness are done in secret, hidden from view and rarely if ever to be revealed. Tales tell of simple people, be they woodchoppers who always secretly provide for the elderly and poor at the edge of town, or men or women who are scrupulous in thanking God no matter the circumstance. Only at the end of the tale is the question asked, “Who was that simple (masked) man?” with the whispered answer, “he/she was of the thirty-six.” Indeed, it is likely that the thirty-six tzaddikim themselves are unaware of their identity; that their simple actions are done for no motive beyond a love of humanity and the Divine.
Our tradition teaches that the Divine spark within each of us is replete with messianic potential. In the same way each of us has the potential through our simple acts of justice and love to be of the thirty-six. Perhaps there are moments in our lives, moments we should build on, when each of us are of the thirty-six.