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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Shoftim)

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, begins with one of the most referenced phrases of the entire Tanach (Bible) “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). This seminal phrase is only three words long…and two of the words are the same! The simplicity of the verse makes it more forceful. The brevity makes it more powerful. There may be no more important Jewish value than to live “Justly.” As the Torah explains, we must treat all people, no matter their status or stature, fairly and kindly. The single middah (core tenet) of “Justice” contains within it the whole of Jewish ethics. Of all of the things that scholars argue about from the Torah text, there is no doubt that a Just World mirrors a Divine World. But what do we do when the explicit and clear command to pursue Justice becomes unclear or complicated?

There is a concept in Jewish life called “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” which is often translated as, “beyond the letter of the law.” Our ancient Rabbis knew that real life situations and matters of worldly judgement are often complicated – that the “Just” choice is not always obvious or explicit. There are numerous case laws in the Talmud when a judgement is made “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’din” beyond the letter of other Torah or Rabbinic Law, in the name of true Justice or Righteousness. The concept of “Lifnim Mishurat Ha’Din” takes a straight-forward commandment to pursue Justice and makes it much more complicated. At best, Justice becomes more nuanced and, at worst, it becomes more subjective.    

While the summer was a relaxing, uneventful, low-stress time for many of us at school, the world news was anything but quiet. It seemed like every day was a new story that brought up a question of Justice or Righteousness. A wide range of real-life, complicated, issues are being argued every day, usually along partisan lines, with each side citing their position as truly “Just.” Sometimes one side will cite the established law while the other side cites the spirit of the law, or vice versa, all in the name of furthering their perspectives. The news this summer offered a daily reminder that life is complicated, and while the iconic verse of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” calls for us to create a simpler, more “Just World”, we know that we must all be prepared to live with a reality that is often messy. 

So how do we approach challenging topics to our students? How do we prepare our students to navigate the messiness of “real life”? At every grade level we are developing critical thinking skills that will prepare our students to engage with the complexities and nuances of the world – in age appropriate ways. Critical Thinking includes challenging assumptions, asking “good” questions, grappling with complexity, developing a point of view that is supported by evidence and finding value in multiple opinions. We don’t proactively engage in discourse about politics to develop these skills, instead we analyze complicated texts from the Tanach, use Investigations as our Math curriculum and use design thinking in our STEAM program. We try to understand what life is like in Israel and we analyze sophisticated poetry. Every discipline at every grade level is somehow guiding our students toward higher order thinking.

The school’s focus on critical thinking skills is inspired by the nuance and richness of our ancient tradition. Our ancient Rabbis grappled with complexity and messiness, guided by the simple words of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” What exactly a “Just World” looks like is unclear and the promise of such a beautiful reality seems ever-fleeting. Yet it is our responsibility to educate and raise pursuers of justice (rodfei tzedek), raising them to wade through the messiness in order to one day heal this world. On behalf of the entire faculty and staff, we look forward to another wonderful year with our eager students – with a special welcome to all of our new students!

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