Every word in the Torah is pregnant with meaning. As the teaching of G-d, no word or even letter can be superfluous. With this introduction, commentators are puzzled by the repetitive expression employed by the Torah in this week’s Parsha, Shoftim: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof-Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue.” Why is the word tzedek-righteousness repeated?
One answer to this question is that the repetition of the word “righteousness” was intended to dispel the argument that the end justifies the means. For many people, it is sufficient to pursue righteous goals, even if the method by which they achieve their goals is less than righteous. Thus the Torah exhorts us, even righteousness must be pursued with righteousness.
The premise of this answer, while true in many if not most situations, is not necessarily a hard and fast rule. There are cases where the less than righteous methodology used to achieve a desired goal may be acceptable even according to the high moral standards of the Torah. For example, one may use deception to help promote peace. One may break the Sabbath to save a life. One may discipline one’s child or student to help in their education, even though it would be wrong under different circumstances.
In all of these instances, the Torah does indeed permit the temporary “breaking of the rules” of morality and righteousness that it itself set up, in order to lead to a greater good. There are then times when the end does justify the means. How do we know how to decide these matters?
The obvious answer is that only the Torah can say when a particular moral course of action may or must be suspended in order to achieve a greater good. All of the above examples, compromising honesty for the sake of peace, breaking the Sabbath to save a life, etc., are clearly indicated by the Torah as being proper courses of action. Indeed, when the Torah says it is proper to violate the Shabbat to save a life, then it is not a violation of the Shabbat. The end does not really justify the means, for then, the means itself is kosher.
However, whenever the Torah does not give us that license, we are enjoined against rationalizing our errant behavior by referring to the end result that would be positive. For example, one may not steal in order to give charity. One may not perform illegal experiments on a person in order to obtain vital medical information that might save millions of lives in the future.
Another distinction between permissible uses of the “end justifies the means” argument and those that should be rejected lies in the context that the Torah uses this lesson here in this Parsha. The context of the words “righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue” is judgment. The Torah exhorts us to set up a judicial system that will fairly and justly judge the people. In that context, there is never a basis to pervert justice in order to achieve a righteous outcome.
What is the reason for this distinction?
The distinction lies in the very definition of judgment. Judgment in the Torah’s system (as opposed to the adversarial system used by contemporary courts), requires that the judges expose the truth. There is no room for compassion or any other consideration that would cloud the pursuit of truth and justice. For this reason, Jewish courts did not have lawyers whose task it usually is to obscure the truth in the interests of one’s client. Thus, in the context of judgment, the Torah states unequivocally, “Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue.” The judge has no right to in any way compromise the pursuit of justice and truth, because a compromise of truth and justice is by definition the absence of it. The courtroom, our Sages tell us, is where G-d’s presence is palpable. Where G-d. the epitome of truth, is present, there is no room for compromise.
In our daily prayers we ask G-d to bring us Moshiach to restore the judiciary to its original position. Many of the prophetic writings speak of the glorious future where justice will be restored. Why is this such an important ands cherished hope for the future? In light of the above it is clear that true justice means that the trait of G-dly truth is so dominant as to preclude any injustice. When we ask for the restoration of the judiciary as in the days of old, we are essentially asking G-d for a world in which G-dly truth is always present, precluding any and all injustice.