פרשת פנחס - Parashat Pinhas
Social or Justice – Can it be both?
Rabbi Asher Sabag
The term Social Justice requires some thought, since justice indicates strict compliance with legal truths, whereas social seems to demand some form of compromise designed to achieve a more reformed society. The best example is affirmative action – one of society's means by which to grant its weaker parts an equal opportunity – whereby the more qualified person may sometimes be rejected to allow another to be accepted, just because the latter comes from a weaker part of society. Such an instance ostensibly contradicts the principle of justice.
We can find examples of such affirmative action in the Torah as well: Korban Anni – the sacrifice brought in by the poor, and Korban Ashir – the sacrifice brought in by the wealthy. Although both sinned in the same manner, the "wealthy" pays more than the "poor" in repentance of an identical sin, because it is more socially moral. But is that not counter-intuitive in terms of justice? In this week's Sedra we find similar tension between two terms that share a similar contradiction between them to the one described above. Hashem orders Moshe to praise Pinhas for his act of zeal, and declares:
הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם– I give him my covenant of peace. There seems to be a clear dissonance between the act and its reward – does zeal not denote strict adherence to a law in pursuit of a goal, whereas peace indicates the opposite, conceding and compromising to bridge between different goals? Why would Hashem give Pinhas the exact opposite of what he had done?
The contradiction may be explained against the backdrop of the story about King David. The Bible tells us that King David was not worthy of building the Temple because the House of G-d was named "Hashem Shalom", whereas David had engaged in war and spilled blood. True, he did so in the interest of the people, and yet these actions deemed him inappropriate for Temple building. Similarly, Pinhas knew that his action would result in the loss of his calling – he would not be able to serve as a priest and thereby bring about a special kind of peace – but he was willing to pay that price in order to save the people from G-d's wrath. True, his act was one of zeal, but its purpose was to achieve "peace", and for that peace he had sacrificed what mattered to him most. Pinhas' zealousness was not promoted by egotistical incentives, he did not seek to coerce others into complying with his lifestyle. Pinhas merely sought to save the entire nation, and for that end he was willing to give up his own way of life. And that is why Hashem rewards him with His covenant of peace, returning his lifestyle to him since his deed was designed to achieve that very same goal.
Thus, in order for the terms social and justice to be non-contradictory, they must have a goal that is superior to them both: If justice has no end, it becomes wickedness, as the book of Ecclesiastes [Kohelet] says:
וְעוֹד רָאִיתִי תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ מְקוֹם הַמִּשְׁפָּט שָׁמָּה הָרֶשַׁע וּמְקוֹם הַצֶּדֶק שָׁמָּה הָרָשַׁע
And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, and wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, where iniquity was.
And if social has no goal, it achieves the opposite and perpetuates the distinction drawn by social strata. The Talmud tells us of Rabba son of Hanan, who hired two porters to carry barrels of wine for him, which they proceeded to break. Since they could not pay for the barrels, Rabba son of Hanan took their coats in collateral for paying their debt. The porters complained about him to Rav, and the latter forced Rabba son of Hanan to return their coats to them. And Rabba son of Hanan asked him: "Is that lawful? Are you not ruling this way simply out of pity? Does this not contradict justice? They have caused me damage!" And Rav replied with a verse in Proverbs [Mishlei]: "לְמַעַן תֵּלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ טוֹבִים" – that you may walk in the way of good men. The porters then demanded their wages, although they did not complete their task, on account of being poor and having nothing to eat. Again, Rav forced Rabba son of Hannan to pay them, and again the latter asked: "Is this lawful?", and Rav replied with the second party of the same verse he had quoted before: "וְאָרְחוֹת צַדִּיקִים תִּשְׁמֹר" – and keep the paths of the righteous.
Rav's response comes to tell us that justice and law are means to an end – they are designed to help us walk in the way of good men and keep the path of the righteous. Therefore, if the literal meaning of justice makes us be cruel to the poor, it has defeated its purpose and is futile. When social and justice mean "personal comfort", they are contradictory terms, and both are ill-served. But if they come together to create a more reformed society "that walks in the path of the good and righteous", not only do they not contradict one another, they in fact complement one another, and form the true meaning of the term social justice.
Rabbi Asher Sabag is a Tzohar rabbi and the community rabbi of Har Moriah in Rishon Lezion, Israel.