Is it enough just to be a good person? This is a question I have spent wrestling with for much of my professional career. While I don’t believe that Judaism is the one singular path to Eternal Truth, I find tremendous meaning and guidance in our 3000-year-old tradition and cannot image discarding all of it so that I can “just be a good person.” What I find most troubling about the sentiment of just “being a good person” is the implication that what can determine what “good” is on our own without help from the collective wisdom of tradition and then knowing exactly how to be and do good alone without any guidance.
Our Torah portion this week, Shoftim (“Judges”), includes the commandment, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” a foundational principle, so to speak, for being good! But why does the Torah have to repeat “justice” twice? In her commentary on this parsha, Nachama Leibowitz (z”l), a modern Torah scholar, writes “We are commanded to compel men [and women] to do #1) that which is good and upright and #2) prevent ”unworthy deeds”. Medieval scholar Ibn Ezra tells us that we are told “Justice, Justice” twice so that we know we should do it, whether it will be to our gain or our loss, all the days of our lives. In other words, “just doing good” is not easy or clear. It is complex and demanding.
Personally, I worry that in our modern society we think too much about what will be lost in pursuing justice and whether enough will actually be gained. We worry about what “speaking out” or “standing up” might do for us personally and if it will be “worth it.” It is tough choices like these that make it hard to be a “good person” alone without the benefit of tradition’s wisdom. How good do we have to be? How often do we have to be good? How much risk should we take to do the right thing?
To me, instruction (Torah) on “being good” seems to be flashing in bold when you consider this week’s text and read words “Justice, justice you shall pursue” and as the days have gone by, it seems that with each passing hour there are shining examples of individuals guided by our teachings doing justice. Many of our KI members, including our teens have stood up for justice in face of what happened in Charlottesville and after. I was also inspired by a Reform Rabbi from Kenosha Wisconsin, Dena Feingold, asking tough questions and receiving support from her longtime family friend Paul Ryan.
It also saw musicians like Billy Joel making strong statements at summertime concerts and it witnessed a statement from three mainstream Rabbinical organizations (Reform, Conservative and Reform) that they would not be holding an annual call with the President prior to the High Holidays to protest his failure to unambiguously condemn white supremacy and Nazism in America.
And so this week as the words, “Justice, Justice You shall Pursue” seem to leap off the Torah scroll and challenge us: how can I be “good” today as a citizen and as a Jew. Finally, I am also reminded of the words of this week’s Haftarah, one of the seven Haftarot of consolation between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah. In the Book of Isaiah, we read: “What ails you that you fear mortals? there is only one true savior, and only one comfort…and this is in God.” Being a good person might be enough for some. But for me, being part of a community of faith, one that has both the ability to comfort and to inspire, is a tradition I am honored to help uphold in my quest to purse justice and to be a good person.
Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler