You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities… and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment… Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land…
(Deuteronomy 16, 18-20)
“Justice, justice shall you pursue” has become a familiar phrase, used often. But we should examine: What is the significance of the double use of the word “justice?” And what does this phrase add to the one that preceded it, “judge the people with righteous judgment?”
The sages of the Talmud offered a fascinating interpretation of this verse:
“Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” one mention of “justice” is stated with regard to judgment and one is stated with regard to compromise. How so? Where there are two boats traveling on the river and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to pass, both of them sink, as the river is not wide enough for both to pass. If they pass one after the other, both of them pass. And similarly, where there are two camels who were ascending the ascent of Beit Ḥoron, where there is a narrow steep path, and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to ascend, both of them fall. If they ascend one after the other, both of them ascend.
How does one decide which of them should go first? If there is one boat that is laden and one boat that is not laden, the needs of the one that is not laden should be overridden due to the needs of the one that is laden. If there is one boat that is close to its destination and one boat that is not close to its destination, the needs of the one that is close should be overridden due to the needs of the one that is not close. If both of them were close to their destinations, or both of them were far from their destinations, impose a compromise between them to decide which goes first, and the owners of the boats pay a fee to one other, i.e., the owners of the first boat compensate the owner of the boat that waits, for any loss incurred.
(Sanhedrin 32, 2)
The sages of the Talmud explain that this verse is referring to situations in which you cannot enforce regular laws of justice. They bring two examples: one describing two boats sailing from two different directions, and the other describing two camels ascending a very steep path.
In both cases, the usual laws of justice cannot be applied since both boats and both camels are right. If we would use rules of absolute justice, we would be forced to leave them to argue who has the right of way until a decision is reached. It is about such cases that the Torah states, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Meaning, there are disputes in which other considerations must be taken into consideration. How? If one of the boats has cargo and the other is empty, right of way should be given to the one carrying cargo since its delay would incur greater losses. If one is farther from its destination than the other, the directive of “justice, justice” would necessitate giving right of way to the one with a longer distance to travel. And what if there are no such differences? In that case, one must try to reach a compromise that might include financial compensation.
This concept expressed by the verse “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” can serve us in daily conflicts we face with our families, friends, or neighbors. Sometimes justice is on our side, and we find it very difficult to give in, leading us to a dead-end. We just remember the incredible virtue of “justice, justice” that allows us to use common sense to search for creative solutions, ones that are both fair and convenient for both sides, even in the most complicated of situations.
In the spirit of this verse, we might rephrase the folk saying, “Don’t be right, be smart.” Search for the wise solution that includes leniency and a lot of compromise.