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Parshat Shoftim: Poetry or Practicality

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


Poetry or Practicality 

We have previously noted and discussed the tension created by the multilayered character of the book of Devarim (see Devarim 1). On the one hand, as we have noted, Devarim chronicles the poignant human drama of Moshe’s farewell to his people. Within his public addresses, this great leader waxes eloquent as he searches for words that will remain with his “flock” long after he is gone. On the other hand, Devarim is an integral part of God’s eternal law. As such, this text is bound by the rules that govern the interpretation of the entire Torah. Every word is essential; each phrase is divinely chosen to convey a particular eternal message to the reader. While this dual unfolding is felt throughout the book of Devarim, there are times when it rises more clearly to the surface, complicating the nature of specific imperatives appearing in the text. Two powerful examples of such commandments are found in Parshat Shoftim:

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God.”

How are we meant to view commandments such as those quoted above? Are they general, spontaneous products of Moshe’s passion as he strives to penetrate the hearts of a listening people? Or are they mitzvot, or elements of mitzvot, divinely fashioned, like all other Torah imperatives, toconvey specific behavioral requirements across the ages? If the latter is true, what are those concrete requirements?

The first and most important answer to our questions is clearly “ all of the above.” As we often have noted before, the Torah text unfolds on multiple levels simultaneously.

The narrative in the book of Bereishit, for example, chronicles the birth of a nation through the stories of individual families. The national saga coursing beneath the surface of these personal tales does not in any way diminish the poignant private journeys described therein.

Similarly, any halachic requirements conveyed by Moshe’s imperatives to the nation in the book of Devarim should not blind us to the dramatic passion reflected in his words. To fully appreciate this book of the Torah, we must always keep the scene of its unfolding before our eyes. An aged, powerful leader bids farewell to the people that he has shepherded from slavery to freedom. Powerful sentiments course through each sentence as Moshe shares his personal regrets with the nation over his inability to join in entering the land; desperately tries to teach final, critical lessons before his death; and delivers, one last time, words of encouragement, warning, support, remonstration and so much more. Clearly Moshe’s eloquent choice of words mirrors a myriad of personal emotions.

At the same time, however, these are words of Torah text and, as such, transcend the moments of their delivery. Concrete, eternal instructions are contained within the commandments shared by Moshe throughout the book of Devarim. Every phrase uttered by this great leader, no matter how dramatic, is therefore fair game for halachic analysis by scholars across the ages.The two phrases before us provide telling examples of the varied rabbinic approaches to Moshe’s dramatic words in Sefer Devarim.

I. Tzedek tzedek tirdof


The phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof…, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you,” appears at the end of the short opening passage of Parshat Shoftim. Serving as an introduction to the entire parsha, this three-sentence passage conveys the general admonition to establish a righteous system of governance upon entering the land.


While the scholars of the Talmud do not derive an independent mitzva from the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they do view this phrase as potentially broadening the Torah’s demand for justice in multiple ways. A number of interpretations in this vein are suggested in the tractate of Sanhedrin.

The rabbis open the Talmudic discussion by questioning the demands presented by two separate biblical verses. In the book of Vayikra, the Torah commands, “with justice shall you judge your fellow,”6 while the text in Devarim demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” Perceiving seemingly contrasting requirements emerging from these verses, the rabbis ask: In which cases does “judging with justice” suffice? And in which cases must we “pursue justice, justice” with extra vigor?

Answering their own question, the scholars explain that through the use of these variations, the text challenges judges to follow their own instincts. In straightforward situations, where the facts match the judges’ internal perceptions; “judging with justice” will suffice. When the judges suspect deceit, however, they must dig deeper, moving past the apparent facts before them, as they “pursue justice” with further force. A judge cannot fulfill his task in pro forma fashion. He must always invest his full capacities as God’s agent in the administration of the law.


Rabbi Ashi demurs, negating the textual question raised by his colleagues. The two Torah passages are not in conflict, this sage argues, as the repetitive language in the phrase “Justice, justice shall you pursue” does not reflect a call for extraordinary effort in specific cases. At all times, a judge must apply himself fully towards the rendering of a just verdict. Instead, the reiteration “Justice, justice…” references the legitimacy of two distinct judicial paths: justice and compromise. Based upon the circumstances and the judgment of the bench, either of these paths can be followed.

Rabbi Ashi’s acceptance of compromise as a legitimate judicial path is carried one step further by another Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, earlier in this same tractate, Sanhedrin. Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that, when possible, a judge is obligated to negotiate or arbitrate a compromise between two disputants. To buttress his position, this scholar quotes the pronouncement of the prophet Zecharia, “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.”

How, Rabbi Yehoshua asks, is a “justice of peace” attainable? One could argue that these two terms are mutually exclusive. Is it not true that when a decision is determined through strict justice, peace has not been achieved? One of the disputants will inevitably be dissatisfied the verdict.

What, then, is the “judgment of peace” to which the prophet refers? Obviously, answers Rabbi Yehoshua, the prophet is referencing the path of compromise.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred legal path, however, is not without controversy. In the same passage of Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean maintains that a judge is absolutely forbidden to arbitrate a compromise. While disputants can certainly find a middle ground between themselves, Rabbi Eliezer maintains, once they approach a court for a ruling, strict justice must rule the day.

Strangely enough, Rabbi Eliezer’s position prohibiting courtroom compromise would seem to find support from the very sentence that Rabbi Yehoshua quotes to buttress his own position in support of such compromise: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” For while conciliation satisfies the need for both “peace” and “judgment,” it does not satisfy the third component cited by the prophet, “truth.” If a judge arbitrates a compromise between two litigants, he does not arrive at the truth. He creates, in effect, a legal fiction through which neither of the parties completely loses. Such a fiction is an acceptable settlement, Rabbi Eliezer argues, only before the court becomes involved. Once the legal process is engaged, a judge can only choose one path. He is obligated to strive for the truth through the strict application of Torah law.

In spite of Rabbi Eliezer’s compelling argument against judicial negotiation, however, the halacha, as codified both in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch,11 adopts Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred courtroom path.

In the words of the Rambam,

It is a mitzva [for a judge] to ask the litigants, at the onset of the legal process, “Do you wish a legal ruling or a compromise?” If they desire to compromise, [the court] should effect a compromise between them. And any court that consistently effects compromise is a laudatory court about which [the prophet] states: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” What justice is accompanied by peace? Let us say that it is [the justice of] compromise.

The halachic support of judicial compromise, even at the expense of the truth, mirrors the powerful priority placed upon shalom, interpersonal peace, in countless other scholarly texts. Most telling, perhaps, is the rabbinic decision to close the entire Mishna and, arguably, the two most important prayers in Jewish liturgy, the Amida and the Kaddish, with paragraphs focusing on the theme of peace. Furthermore, in the fashioning of these prayers, the rabbis apparently take their cue from God Himself. The divinely authored Priestly Blessing, pronounced daily by the Kohanim over the nation at God’s command, culminates with the prayer “May the Lord turn His countenance towards you and grant you peace.

Halacha thus mandates that peace, the greatest of God’s blessings, must be aggressively pursued by God’s judicial agents in this world, even when that peace comes at the expense of truth.


Finally, yet another explanation for the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof is offered by the rabbis in the same Talmudic passage, based on the recognition that judges do not bear sole responsibility for the creation of a just society. As understood by the rabbis, the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof can be seen as the last in a series of directives issued by Moshe in Sefer Devarim concerning the essential reciprocal relationship between a society and its judges.

  1. Moshe opens his very first farewell address, recorded at the beginning of the book of Devarim, by recalling instructions he had previously given both to the nation and its judges concerning the establishment of a just society: As we left Sinai, he reminds the people, I instructed you to choose appropriate judges. And I admonished those judges to apply the law with justice.
  2. Now, as Moshe returns to the theme of governance at the beginning of Parshat Shoftim, he again sounds the call for respectful reciprocity: “Judges and officers shall you set for yourselves in all your gates.… And they will judge the nation with just judgment.” You, as a people, must do your part in creating a society built upon the administration of justice, while those whom you choose as leaders must administer that justice justly.
  3. He then continues by admonishing the judges directly: “You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not show favoritism and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make the words of the righteous twisted.”
  4. Moshe closes with the declaration Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
    This last sentence, the Talmud suggests, is not directed towards the judges at all. Instead, with the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof, Moshe turns his attention back to the nation by raising the concept of societal judicial responsibility to a new level. For, at this point, Moshe addresses potential litigants.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “seek out an exemplary court.” Do not twist the process of jurisprudence to meet your own personal ends. Do not search for a court that is clearly predisposed to your point of view. There is more at stake here than your own personal concerns. Pursue justice; seek out an unbiased, exemplary court. Even as litigants, you play a pivotal role in maintaining the seriousness with which the law is taken and ensuring the proper administration of justice throughout the land.


Building upon these Talmudic suggestions, numerous other legal interpretations of the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof are suggested by commentaries across the ages.

It remains, however, for the eighteenth-century German scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to remind us not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. For while Hirsch himself quotes a number of the legal Talmudic references cited above, he also interprets Moshe’s passionate charge to the nation as a general directive meant to define the moral character of his people’s society:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
As the highest unique goal, to be striven for purely for itself, to which all other considerations have to be subordinated, the concept, “Tzedek, Right, Justice,” …is to be kept in the mind of the whole nation. To pursue this goal unceasingly and with all devotion is Israel’s one task; with that it has done everything to secure its physical and political existence.

A loyal halachist, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch would be the first to acknowledge the importance of each legal detail gleaned by the Talmud from the verse Tzedek tzedek tirdof. At the same time, however, this visionary leader warns the reader not to overlook the power of Moshe’s words as a broad exhortation towards the overall establishment of a just society.

II. Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha


The second of the verses before us, Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God,” appears in the middle of a paragraph in Parshat Shoftim prohibiting the practices of sorcery and divination.

Here the rabbinic divide becomes starker. For, as indicated above, although the rabbis debate the practical significance of the phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they are united on one point. This dramatic statement does not constitute a new, unique mitzva. Moshe’s eloquent words convey, instead, an expansion on existing law.

When it comes to Moshe’s declaration Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, however, no such agreement exists. Instead, two fundamentally disparate approaches emerge from rabbinic literature.


At one end of the spectrum stand those authorities, such as the Ramban, who count the imperative Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha as an independent positive mitzva, a separate one of the 613 commandments. This mitzva, these scholars maintain, obligates each Jew to recognize God’s sole awareness of and power over future events.

The approach of these authorities is based on consideration of the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in context, as a positive iteration of the surrounding prohibitions against sorcery and divination. Through this declaration, the Ramban thus maintains, God commands the nation “to direct their hearts exclusively to Him; to believe that He, alone, is the Doer of all; that He knows the truth regarding the future; and from Him [alone] we should ask about that which is to come, from His prophets and pious ones.”

To buttress his approach, the Ramban cites biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic sources. Particularly telling is the parallel this sage draws between the verse before us and the opening imperative in a covenant between God and the patriarch Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history: Hit’halech l’fanai v’heyei tamim, “Walk before me and be wholehearted.” Here, too, God commands Avraham to remain steadfast in his rejection of the superstitious mores of the surrounding cultures. Be complete with Me, Avraham; recognize that I, and I alone, guide and control all that you see…

Puzzled by the Rambam’s omission of this obligation from his list of the mitzvot in Sefer Hamitzvot, the Ramban posits, “Perhaps the master [the Rambam] perceives this mandate as a general exhortation to perform the commandments and walk in the ways of the Torah…and therefore did not include it in his enumeration.”

“As is evident from the words of our sages, however,” the Ramban concludes, “the approach we have outlined [viewing this imperative as an independent commandment] is the correct one.”


At the other end of the spectrum can be found scholars such as Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda who openly interpret the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in general terms. In his introduction to his famous ethical work Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Rabbeinu Bachya explains this biblical verse not as a unique mitzva, but as an overarching exhortation on Moshe’s part towards uniform ethical behavior throughout the life of each Jew: “And you should know that the intent and purpose of the precepts of the heart is to cultivate a complete harmony between our inner and outward actions in the service of the Lord.”

From Rabbeinu Bachya’s perspective, the imperative to be tamim (wholehearted) is a general one, mandating consistency between a person’s thoughts and actions. An individual whose words are at variance with his deeds, Bachya maintains, is not trusted by those around him. Similarly, if an individual’s service of God is marked by inconsistency and insincerity, if the intentions of his heart are contradicted by his words, if his inner convictions do not match his outward actions, his service of God will not be perfect.

Once again, we are reminded by a great luminary not to allow the details, important as they are, to blind us to the overarching power and passion of Moshe’s words. On a global level, Bachya argues, Moshe’s proclamation Tamim tihiyeh conveys a truth that courses through the entire Torah. An individual must be “wholehearted with God,” simply because God will reject insincerity.

Poetry or practicality? Passionate proclamations on the part of an aged leader, or concrete commandments to a people across time? Moshe’s eloquent declarations are both at the same time – text meant to be studied and taught on multiple levels at once. When we recognize this truth, the full beauty of the book of Devarim is revealed…