Martin Luther King Jr once said “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” To go back a few more years, Moses said in this week’s Parshah, Shoftim, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” as he continues his review of our journey as it nears its completion and he nears the end of his life. The word shoftim means judges and the Parshah focuses on doing right and the consequences and system of punishment when people do not do what is right.
We are all looking for true peace and sometimes the easiest way to achieve something that involves both removing something and adding something is to focus on the addition. In a diet, if you are told to eat less processed food and more fruits and vegetables, you can sometimes accomplish both by just adding the healthy food as it will crowd out the unhealthy. So if true peace requires both removing tension and adding justice, then focusing on justice may help to crowd out the tension. So how do we add justice to our lives? It sounds like something that should be there organically, but when we really examine our day to day existence, how much is centered around doing what is morally right and fair as justice is officially defined.
So the first dissonance in our lives that appears when considering this idea is the question of what is fair and how important is that. Being morally fair is different than having everything be equal and sometimes that confusion actually leads us away from true peace and justice.
When I was growing up, my sister and I, who were three years apart, constantly complained to my mother when we thought the other had received something more or better than we had, saying “It’s not fair!” (You have to say that with the proper amount of whine!) And she would invariably say “Life’s not fair.” We never really liked that answer, but in reflection I came to learn that it is absolutely true. Life is not fair if we are talking about everyone getting exactly what the next person has. So if we expect life to be fair, we become disappointed and even disillusioned. And it can get more serious than just wanting what the neighbors have. There is a young boy who attends our local elementary school who is battling a rare form of brain cancer. He is 6 years old and has just entered hospice care. Life is not fair. A good friend of mine recently relocated for a job, bought a new house and had just begun to settle in when she learned the company is eliminating her department. Life is not fair. But if we accept that life is not fair as far as the challenges and opportunities it provides, that is when we can step up to take action, and in taking action can do what is right and morally fair and restore justice. If we spend our time dwelling on why this is happening to us, the spiral can be fast and steep. But if we understand that there are things we do not understand and sometimes cannot even imagine, then we can let go of “Why” and start asking “Now what?” And of course, what goes around comes around. My kids complain about exactly what my sister and I complained about to my mother. There is a constant chorus of “Mom, it’s not fair. He got more or she had a sleepover and I didn’t.” It may even be worse because Sarah and Louis are so close in age. They keep a steely eye on what the other one is doing or getting. I have added three words to my mother’s response. My answer is usually “Life’s not fair, but that’s ok.” Once we accept that it is what it is, and that’s ok, then we can get back to living with joy and doing what’s right.
How hard is it to uphold justice on a small scale and what does it look like? It does not have to be sweeping actions. It does not have to involve courthouses with shiny white columns or courtrooms with solemn judges or shoftim. Just behavior can be found in the smallest gesture of generosity or assistance. It can be found in our treatment of others with respect and in our choices that reinforce kindness, connection and love.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I love the word pursue. It can be defined as to follow something in order to catch it and also to continue or proceed along a path. That path can get rocky, but when we judge ourselves constantly by what is morally right and fair, then like the tree of life, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.
So as we face our week, let’s pursue justice as an active part of our day and our daily decisions. Let’s pursue it in the way we speak to our children, spouses and friends. Let’s pursue it in how we choose to spend our time, money and talents. Let’s pursue it in our businesses and our homes and in every aspect of our lives. If we pursue it with passion and persistence, we may actually catch true peace by giving peace. And that may be how we are all judged.