At a deep level, most of us have instincts about what fairness actually is. We tend to think that fairness happens when everyone receives exactly the same amount of material goods, is measured against goals in the same way, or receives the same amount of effort and investment. Most of us are taught about “fairness” in this way when we are very young. As adults, we call it equal distribution of resources. This is, of course, the easiest kind of fairness to measure, and the easiest to remain accountable to.
The Torah offers us plenty of this sort of justice. In Parashat Shofetim, this kind of justice is placed front and center. The phrase “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” is iconic of what it means to be a Jew in the world. To be a just people, we must establish leadership which will “judge the people with righteous judgment,” “not recognize the faces [of the parties in any court case],” and to “take no bribes,” and “do not deviate from the proper sentence, either to the right or to the left.” Laws are outlined that demand punishment for certain actions, set standards for proving guilt or innocence, and establish institutions that will be responsible for the various parts of the system of justice. It seems that in order to be just, it must be completely impersonal and anonymous. No one gets “less,” and no one gets “more.”
At the same time, the words of Torah complicate this vision. Throughout the soaring rhetoric in praise of this type of justice, woven in we find verses, laws, and situations which call us to a vision of justice that is deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic, and able to meet a wider variety of needs. This vision of justice is first and foremost relational. We learn that those who administer justice (whether as kings or as prophets) must have a personal stake in the community that they judge – they must see themselves as “brethren” to those who will come before them. Witnesses, too, must be personally involved in the outcome of a case – and must be personally prepared to carry out any sentence that results from their testimony. When violence is done to an individual, redress is not sought impersonally. It is the nearest relative who serves as the “go’el hadam” – the “redeemer of blood” for the wronged. Finally we learn that when a person is found dead, the elders and judges from each nearby town must come to the place, and measure the precise distance to each town. The town nearest the victim must “claim” him as their own, and the elders of that town must personally make the offering that addresses the tragedy. The laws and principles that appear throughout the parashah can only be carried out by people in real relationship with one another.
This counter-current within the parashah points to a vision of justice that is about something more than sameness. In this parallel vision, justice is achieved when society is personally and directly invested in the fate of each member. Justice is what happens when the leaders and decision-makers know that they are “brethren” with those they lead and teach, and when they make decisions based not only on purity of process but also based on the idiosyncratic realities of each situation.
This is the kind of justice that our organizations, synagogues, and schools need to embody. When we make communal decisions, set priorities, and respond to the needs voiced by our members, we are called to make those decisions from a place of deep relationship. To be a sacred community, is to define fairness and justice as personal commitment to one another’s sustenance and success.