Tzedek (justice) is a key word in the book of Devarim – most famously in the following verse toward the beginning of this week’s parshah: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you” (16:20).
The distribution of the word tzedek and its derivate, tzedakah, in the Five Books of Moses is anything but random. It is overwhelmingly concentrated on the first and last books – Genesis (where it appears 16 times) and Deuteronomy (18 times). In Exodus it occurs only four times, and in Leviticus five. All but one of these are concentrated in two chapters: Exodus 23 (where three of the four occurrences are in two verses, 23:7-8), and Leviticus 19 (where all five incidences are in chapter 19). In Numbers, the word does not appear at all.
This distribution is one of many indications that the Chumash is constructed as a chiasmus, a literary unit of the form ABCBA. Here’s the structure:
A: Genesis – the pre-history of Israel (the distant past). B: Exodus – the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. C: Leviticus – the code of holiness. B: Numbers – the journey from Mount Sinai to the banks of the Jordan. A: Deuteronomy – the post-history of Israel (the distant future).
The leitmotif of tzedek/tzedakah appears at the key points of this structure – the two outer books of Genesis and Deuteronomy, and the central chapter of the work as a whole, Leviticus 19. Clearly the word is a dominant theme of the Mosaic books as a whole.
What does it mean? Tzedek/tzedakah is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness, and innocence. It certainly means more than strictly legal justice, for which the Bible uses words like mishpat and din. One example illustrates the point: “If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sundown, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your G-d” (Deuteronomy 24:12-13).
Tzedakah cannot mean legal justice in this verse. It speaks of a situation in which a poor person has only a single cloak or covering, which he has handed over to the lender as security against a loan. The lender has a legal right to keep the cloak until the loan has been repaid. However, acting on the basis of this right is simply not the right thing to do. It ignores the human situation of the poor person, who has nothing else with which to keep warm on a cold night. The point becomes even clearer when we examine the parallel passage in Exodus 22, which states:
“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:25-26).
The same situation that in Deuteronomy is described as tzedakah is termed in Exodus as compassion or grace (chanun). The late Aryeh Kaplan translated tzedakah in Deuteronomy 24 as “charitable merit.” It is best rendered as “the right and decent thing to do” or “justice tempered by compassion.”
In Judaism, tzedek, as opposed to mishpat, must be tempered by compassion. Hence the terrible, tragic irony of Portia’s speech in “The Merchant of Venice”:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to G-d himself; And earthly power doth then show likest G-d’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea…
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks