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Mishpatim: Duck, Duck… Justice! ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Article abstract for Parashat Mishpatim:

This weeks portion is dedicated in large measure to teaching righteousness, defining what is right and good behavior between human beings. Righteousness is called צדק in Hebrew, and as if to emphasize the centrality of this concept to the human condition, this root is one of the most common in the Bible, appearing no less than 655 times throughout the Tanach.

But what lies at the core of צדק? From the hundreds of examples of צדיקים and צדקה, what is the fundamental underlying lesson for us in everyday life?

In order to discover the intrinsic meaning of the word, this article looks to the foundational letters of the root itself, namely examining the gamut of other terms in the Bible containing the two-letter string דק. A pattern quickly emerges, pointing to an aspect of uprightness only Divine wisdom could teach.

מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל תַּהֲרֹג כִּי לֹא אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע (שמות פרק כג:ז).

Keep far from a false matter; and do not slay the innocent and righteous (צַדִּיק); for I will not justify (אַצְדִּיק) the wicked (Ex. 23:7).

The root צדק is one of the most oft-repeated in Scripture. Nevertheless, we can always glean new insights into the word by examining the underlying biliteral string דק and showing how צדק relates to other words derived from that two-letter string.

  1. דק / דקק (grinding, pulverizing).

  2. דקר (stabbing, piercing, splitting).

  3. חדק (thorn, an object that pierces and stabs).

  4. סדק (a crack, crevice / ripping) - סדק is actually an Aramaic word, but was already commonplace in the Hebrew of the Mishna.

  5. בדק (crack, crevice).

  6. צדק is the root under discussion.

All of the meanings of the previous words listed (grinding, pulverizing, stabbing, piercing, splitting, and ripping as well as cracks and crevices) point to a common core meaning: an entity or matter which is lacking in wholeness (at least by the time you’re done with it). This leads us in our journey towards understanding the connection between צדק all the other דק-related words:

The Torah commands, righteousness, righteousness [צֶדֶק צֶדֶק] shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20). In discussing this verse, Reish Lakish (Sanhedrin 32b) asks what is the difference between this verse and a similar verse: With righteousness [בְּצֶדֶק] you shall judge your fellow (Lev. 19:15)?

Reish Lakish answers that the word righteousness is repeated when dealing with a claim that appears fraudulent. Rashi explains that the repetition of the word "righteousness" is in order to teach the level of דקדוק, precision, required in dealing with cases where fraud is suspected (and the word דקדוק used by Rashi is itself is a doubling of the root דק, defined above as grinding, pulverizing).

Meaning, intensive interrogations of witnesses are carried out in order to find cracks in their testimony. Penetrating questions are asked in order to poke holes in their in stories, grind them down and separate fact from fiction, ripping lies and slander to shreds. This is the obligation of a judge. After the judges' cross-examinations, what remains of the false testimony should be nothing but a pulverized pile of dust.

However, the word צדיק (righteous man) that appears in our Parashah describes a person who walks the straight path in life. What does such a lofty title have to do with splitting, tearing, grinding and the like? The answer is that a צדיק is also a judge of sorts - not of others, but rather of himself. He probes and inspects, cross-examining every excuse, false claim and lie his Evil Inclination uses to try to justify [להצדיק] what is wrong.

May we be counted amongst the ranks of the צדיקים who constantly strive to improve themselves and leave the world a better place than they found it. And may we merit to see the coming of the Messiah of Righteousness [משיח צדקינו], as Isaiah (1:27) pronounces: Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness. May this prophecy be fulfilled speedily in our times. Amen.

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