A Thought on the Blessing for Justice

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

I was looking through an old scrapbook of items I had saved from High School days a few days ago and came across a program from 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the Klein Memorial Auditorium in Bridgeport, CT. I'm afraid that I remember little from that speech other than the excitement of hearing Dr. King in person. I see from the program that before the main address, two local rabbis were among those who spoke, both of whom had gone down to Alabama in a group of clergy to march with Dr. King and both of whom had been arrested with him at that time. There was no question in our minds even as teenagers that we had to go to hear this great man speak when he came to our home town. Our rabbis considered the fight for civil rights to be an extension of the words of Torah they were imparting to us. Dr. King's teachings were for us as important as any Bible lesson we were taught in religious school. In fact, when I think of Dr. King, aside from the ringing conclusion of his “I have a dream” speech, I always think of the verse from Amos that he quoted in that speech and elsewhere,“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This struggle was not for personal gain, but to put our country back on its biblical foundations. We were taught the words of Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” “Justice, justice you shall pursue” which I was told meant pursue justice, but it should be justice administered justly, a goal still to be sought in many parts of our country. Our laws should be fair and equitable and those who administer them should be governed themselves by the highest standards of righteousness.

Among the prayers in this series of essays on our prayerbook, I have touched on the opening and closing blessings of the Amidah which are said on weekdays as well as on Shabbat and festivals and I've also talked about the middle blessing of the Shabbat amidah, the Kedushat Hayom, the prayer of the sanctification of the day. I have not yet, however, touched on the thirteen petitions which fill the middle section of the Amidah three times each weekday in place of this Shabbat blessing. These brachot are neatly divided into two groups. The first six requests are for our own personal needs. We pray for knowledge and understanding, for the opportunity to find repentance, for forgiveness of our sins, for redemption from our personal troubles, for healing for all those afflicted among us, and for sustenance to provide for all our needs.

The second group of six petitions broadens our perspective and speaks of the needs of the whole community, indeed it looks toward the ultimate redemption of the world. We ask God to gather in the exiles of our people scattered around the world, to restore our judges, to wipe out all those who seek to destroy us, to support the righteous among us, to restore Jerusalem to its ancient glory, and to bring the Messiah to sit upon David's throne. One more blessing follows these twelve, the blessing of Sh'ma Koleinu, asking the Almighty to hear our voices and to hearken to all of our prayers.

Today, I want to single out one bracha from the second group in this section, namely the prayer for justice, “Hashivah shofteinu k'varishona,” ”Restore our judges as of old.” In creating this blessing for justice, the rabbis turned not to Amos, but to Isaiah. This prophet in his opening chapter, speaks of the corruption of his society and some of what he says sounds all too familiar to us today: “Eichah hay'tah l'zonah” – we read these words on Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath before the fast of Tisha B'Av which commemorates the downfall of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE:

“Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers. Your silver has turned to dross; your wine is cut with water, your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts. They do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow's cause never reaches them....I will restore your magistrates as of old and your counselors as of yore. After that you shall be called City of Righteousness, faithful city. Zion shall be saved in judgment, her repentant ones in the retribution” (Isaiah 1:21-23,26-27).

Isaiah's words of prophecy were transformed in the Amidah into a petition by the sages, “Restore your magistrates as of old and your counselors as of yore.” The word “magistrates” or judges is shoftim, the same word used for those charismatic leaders who showed up from time to time in the era before there was a king in Israel, in the book of Shoftim, of Judges. So some see this prayer as a nostalgic wish to return to those bygone days when the Lord alone was king and there was no earthly ruler in the land. They support this interpretation with the phrase further on in the blessing, “May You alone, O Lord, reign over us with lovingkindness and compassion.” This is the idea that there was no need for a king as in other nations. When you needed a leader, a judge might pop up and do the job. However, even the book of Judges concedes that when there was no king, “ish hayashar b'einav ya-aseh” “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” as they describe the chaotic situation at their time.

I can't accept the interpretation, that we are praying for a time of no earthly judges, for the same passage in Deuteronomy where we find the injunction to pursue justice, begins with specific instructions to appoint judges and magistrates in all our cities. Our prayer, in echoing the words of Isaiah is a cry for justice and righteousness in our society, for it goes on to say “remove from us sorrow and anguish.” Cries of sorrow and anguish rise up around our country when justice is not done, when those in authority fail to fulfill their responsibility to maintain a just and righteous society, when people suffer discrimination, bigotry, and even physical harm and murder, because of what they are, rather than recognizing their common humanity. In all things, we are partners with God in the fulfillment of the message of the Torah and of our prophets. So when the prayer goes on to say, “May You alone, O Lord, reign over us,” it is not a cry for the removal of earthly government, but rather a demand for a reform of that system of administering justice, to bring earthly justice into line with God's demands of us. We pray that our judges and magistrates may live up to the ideals set by the Torah and the prophets to render true and equitable justice to all people, a justice not tainted by prejudice and partisanship, but as is demanded in the Torah, justice that is fair to all.

This blessing concludes with these words of praise, “Praised are You, O Lord, King who loves tzedakah umishpat. Tzedakah is not just charity, it means righteousness, doing what is right and mishpat is justice. Once again, this is a reminder that real justice requires righteousness along with the application of the law. During the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we change the ending of this blessing and say simply, “Praised are You, O Lord, HaMelech HaMishpat, the just King. The rabbis link this ending with the words in Proverbs 29, “By justice a king (melech bamishpat) sustains the land but a fraudulent man tears it down.” Justice is a divine attribute and as such one for humankind to emulate.

Three times a day we are to recite the Amidah and pray for justice. May these repeated pleas inspire us all to go out and work for justice, to create that city of righteousness dreamt of by Isaiah, a city, a country, faithful to the values of our sacred scripture. Let us work for the dream of Dr. King and those who preceded him and those who have followed him and “may justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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