Parashat Shofetim- The Ends and the Means
The Torah in the beginning of Parashat Shofetim speaks about the judicial system, and it famously exhorts, “Sedek Sedek Tirdof” – “You shall pursue justice.”
Already the Gemara raises the question of why the Torah found it necessary to repeat the word “Sedek” (justice) in this verse. What message does the Torah seek to convey with this additional emphasis?
The Gemara explains that the additional word “Sedek” teaches that when choosing a Bet Din (Rabbinical Court) for settling a dispute, one should select the court with the greatest expertise and highest professional standards. The Torah instructs us not only to settle our legal disputes in an established Bet Din, but to ensure to choose the most qualified Bet Din available.
There is, however, an additional reason for why the Torah repeats the word “Sedek” in this verse – to teach us that must not sacrifice “Sedek” in the pursuit of “Sedek.” Many people set for themselves lofty, noble objectives, but act ignobly in their pursuit of those objectives. The Communists, for example, sincerely believed that their movement would solve the world’s problems and create a utopian society. And this conviction led them to slaughter an estimated 15 million people in the process of promoting and establishing Communist rule. They felt that the lofty end of equality justified the violent means of bloodshed and warfare. They pursued “Sedek,” but ignored “Sedek” in the course of this pursuit.
The Torah does not subscribe to this belief that “the ends justify means.” From the Torah’s perspective, the means must be as kosher as the ends.
When God appeared to Moshe at the burning bush and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead Beneh Yisrael to freedom, Moshe initially refused to accept the mission. One of the reasons for his refusal was his concern for the feelings of his older brother, Aharon. Moshe had been away from Egypt for many years, during which time Aharon had been serving as spiritual leader, tending to the many needs and hardships facing the people. If Moshe would suddenly return to Egypt and present himself as leader, this might trouble Aharon and offend him. God assured Moshe that Aharon, in his selfless piety, would actually rejoice upon hearing of Moshe’s appointment as leader.
If we analyze Moshe’s situation a bit more closely, we learn a very powerful lesson about the ends and the means. Moshe was offered the sacred mission of leading Beneh Yisrael out of Egypt to become God’s nation, and taking them to Mount Sinai, where he would be the one to bring them the Torah and spend forty days personally learning the Torah from God. Yet, he was prepared to forfeit this opportunity because of the infinitesimal chance of possibly offending his brother. This was undoubtedly a lofty goal – can we think of any loftier goal? – but it was not worth the expense of offending somebody, or even the risk of possibly offending somebody.
We may not act wrongly to do something right. We must never trample on “Sedek” in the pursuit of “Sedek.”
Our Sages teach that the one who arrives first in the synagogue for the Minyan gets as much credit as everyone in the Minyan combined. But if a person gets there first by pushing and shoving, or by speeding or parking illegally, then he does not get any credit. The person who shows up last gets more credit than him. And the same is true about finances. Unfortunately, we often hear of people involved in financial scandals who try to justify their corruption on the basis of the large sums of charity they donate from their ill-begotten gains. This is reminiscent of the Robin Hood system of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The Torah absolutely rejects such an approach. It requires “Sedek Sedek Tirdof” – pursuing righteous goals through righteous means.
The road to justice must pass through justice; a noble end does not justify unjust means. Our determination to do great things must never lead us to compromise our values in the process. We must pursue “Sedek” only through the means of “Sedek.”