Are We Supposed to Be Happy Or Holy?

“Sometimes the quest for meaning can override the quest for happiness.”

 – Roy Baumeister

The Beauty of Complexity

The beginning paragraph of Shoftim contains the famous phrase: “Justice, justice shall you pursue….” While the Torah may be poetic, it is not poetry. There is not one extraneous word, nor does the text rely on alliterative and other literary devises to turn a phrase. “Justice,” therefore, is not a single word, because justice is not a single concept; “Tzedek,” the Hebrew word for justice, embodies the double qualities of “righteousness” and “mercy.” Laws protect our safety, ensure rights, resolve conflicts, and bind us as a society. Without the underpinning of both righteousness and mercy, however, the resulting society we could create would be neither just – nor holy.  

To create a holy society, however, is not just to survive, but also to thrive, and this entails altruism, the engine that drives the Jewish passion to make the world a better place. Thus, Moses was emphatically emphasizing the selfless imperatives of how we are commanded to treat the weakest of our society, lifting us above our tendencies to become self-centered. Years before “Black Lives Matter” became a slogan, Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, used to say, “OPM – Other People Matter.” But millennia before Chris Peterson, came… (you get the idea).

Covenant Versus Contract

The Jewish people were on the verge of crossing the Jordan and settling the Land of Israel. As such, they would be setting up societies and implementing legal systems, the foundations of the “social contract,” so that we can all get along. Ensuring socially predictable behaviors and norms are crucial to the survival of the common order. Unlike any other society ever created before, however, driven by the economy of the marketplace and the power of the state, the Jewish nation was to be a covenantal community, based on collective responsibility.

In a lecture entitled Cultural Climate Change, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks referred to this as a society of shared values, of how we act towards each other without the market paying us to or the state forcing us to. In a covenantal society, explains Rabbi Sacks, we are all in this together, and we are all responsible for each other; otherwise, all we are left with is the social contract, which dehumanizes us.  When we continue to outsource services, the state gets bigger, while our communities and we, as individuals, grow smaller.

Jews are referred to as the “People of the Covenant,” referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Unless we create just and kind societies, however, based on a collective covenantal consciousness, then we are breaking faith with God, no matter how pious we may think we are. The Declaration of Independence grants individuals the right to pursue liberty and happiness. The Torah, on the other hand, envisions a holy nation pursuing justice, justice.


Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Shoftim/Deuteronomy 16:20.




Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.

– Jeremiah 9:24

A Necessary Repetition

If you are a Jewish kid who graduated law school – and actually got a job – chances are that your proud parents gave you a picture to hang on the wall of your office (or windowless cubicle) with the famous quote, “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue,” which comes right at the beginning of the Torah portion, “Shoftim,” meaning, “Judges.”

As I type the words of this chapter, programmed to assume that I have made a typo by repeating the same word, Microsoft Word highlights the second “justice” in red for me – alerting me to my “mistake.” If only Moses had a laptop with spell check and typo correction, he could have fixed a lot of “typos,” because we see this same duplication in other places in the Torah, such as when God calls out Abraham-Abraham, or Jacob-Jacob, or Moses-Moses. Is it bad editing – or is it deeply meaningful and transformational? And is there a connection between the phrase “justice-justice” and the duplicate names?

When God says, “Abraham-Abraham” or “Moses-Moses,” etc., it is tender and intimate. Think of cuddling a baby or speaking the name of your beloved – we often say their names twice, because, well, once is just not enough to convey the depth of the emotions we can feel. Repeating a first name in that manner is a verbal caress.

As Above – So is Below

There is another concept at work in this double name-calling that is more applicable here, and that is the idea of “as above, so is below.” There is a heavenly version of ourselves, and there is an earthly version of ourselves. The heavenly version represents our potential, the person we could be. The earthly version, on the other hand, is who we are and how we are showing up in the world as the sum of our choices. Think of two portraits: one is hanging on heaven’s walls, and the other one is you, walking around.

When God calls out Abraham-Abraham, etc., we are to understand that in the case of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, these two versions are aligned. There is not a “heavenly Abraham” in contrast to an “earthly Abraham.” The Abraham above was the same as below – congruent and unified between his ideals and his actions.

That’s not true for most of us, however. On the other hand, that’s why we’re here – to close the gap and come as close to that heavenly portrait as possible. Living up to our potential, being congruent and authentic, behaving externally in a way that mirrors our highest internal values, is admittedly a big challenge. As a rabbi was fond of saying to me, however, “we are all works in progress.”

But that idea doesn’t work well with ideals. A society where earthly justice is really out of sync with heavenly justice is not a “society in progress;” rather, it is an unjust society. What we can tolerate in ourselves and on an individual level is intolerable when perpetrated on a grand societal scale. For justice to be “just,” it has to be authentic, congruent and actualized. Like the proverbial pregnant woman, you can’t have just a little bit of it.

Righteous Justice

But who must act justly? We must act justly. And who enacts justice? We must enact it. It’s in our own hands. So can imperfect beings ever create an earthly justice that aligns with heaven? We imagine heavenly justice as strict and severe and we tremble at the idea of facing the Heavenly Court because that is one tough bench to get over.

Maybe there is another alignment going on. In Hebrew, the word, “Tzedek,” which means “justice,” also means “righteousness.” Perhaps the dual use of the word “justice” means that we cannot pursue “justice” without also being “righteous.” That would be perverted justice. Think of the Nuremberg Laws that legitimized the Nazi regime. They were “codes of law,” but utterly lacking righteousness, and in no way aligned with heaven. And we cannot think we are “righteous” unless we are also “just.” Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, wrote:

These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy… walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

This hypocrisy is perverted righteousness. The Hebrew word “Tzedaka,” which means “charity,” comes from the same word, “Tzedek,” which means “justice” and “righteousness.” Thus, unless righteousness is rooted in kindness, in compassion, and in being a giver and caring for the poor and needy, etc., it is not “just.” Being “right with God” but not with your fellow man is not aligned with heaven.

In the Torah portion of Shoftim, “justice” is not a single word, because it is not a single concept. The double word is its own congruence. That’s the alignment to strive for – justice that is righteous and righteousness that is just – rooted in kindness, caring, and giving. Says Robert Frost, Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”

And when we pursue that kind of justice here on earth, we are not only closing the gap between our earthly and heavenly selves but maybe we are, in fact, mirroring the Heavenly Court. If only we could create such a society and live in such a world, truly, wouldn’t it be like heaven on earth? Now how transformational is that?

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Can you think of a time you were just, but not righteous? Meaning you may have done the “right” thing but at the “wrong” cost? What was the outcome? In hindsight, how would you have handled it differently?
  1. What about a time you may have been righteous, but not just? You may have had the right intentions, but still did the “wrong” thing. How could you have handled that differently?
  1. How would you describe the “you” that is earthly, that is below? Now how would you describe the “you” that is heavenly, above? What are some very practical ways that you can bridge the gap between the two of them?