Judge the poor and the orphan; do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
At first glance, this verse seems like something that should come so naturally to us as human beings. And yet, what struck me was the use of forms of the words shf't / judge and tz'dk / justice in the two different halves of the verse.
The verb used in the first half is the same verb that was used in verse two of the psalm. There the Psalmist asks "how long will you judge unjustly" in reference to the appearance that the wicked are not getting what they deserve in this world. It is also the root of the Biblical Word for the "judges" that ruled the Israelites prior to the advent of the monarchy as well as the Modern Hebrew words for a judge in the legal system.
The root of the word hitz'dik "do justice" in the second half of the verse is the same root as tzedek/justice, as in "justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20) and tzedakah, or righteous giving (though often translated as charity).
I began to wonder why the first half of the verse had a more legalistic, and perhaps even negative, connotation, where the second is clearly about righteousness and could only have a positive connotation.
As I tried to understand why one would want to judge the poor and the orphan and do justice to the afflicted and destitute I suddenly read the two halves of the verse as one united verse: 'Judge and act righteously towards the poor, the orphan, the afflicted and the destitute.' This made sense to me, as all of these are viewed within the Torah's framework as among the oppressed for whom we must care as a society.
If this is the case, then why the two different verbs? Then I remembered the verse in the Torah that appears immediately preceding "justice, justice shall you pursue": "You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality ” (Deuteronomy 16:19). It also called to mind Leviticus 19:15, "you shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly."
To act justly and righteously means to treat everyone fairly and to be impartial It means that we must have equanimity when dealing with all human beings, regardless of social status or power.
When we are dealing with those that are less fortunate, we must be just and righteous. However, we must not assume that they are "in the right" simply because they are oppressed any more than we should assume that a wealthy or powerful person is "in the wrong."
Equanimity is one of the keys to mindfulness practice. It is not only about looking at other human beings with calmness and an evenness of temper, but looking at ourselves that way as well. It means experiencing our own thoughts, feelings and actions both through the lens of fair judgment and the lens or justice and righteousness.
What it does NOT mean is that we should be judgmental. For within the perspective of equanimity we are not making value judgments; nothing is inherently bad or good, right or wrong. It simply is what it is. If an action has caused harm to another person or to property, etc. we must certainly treat it as such and there must be consequences. And if our actions help another and make the world a better place, that too must be acknowledged. But each thought, action or utterance must be viewed on its own merits with the balance of justice and righteousness, but still in a non-judgmental way. We must look at the actions and their results and not judge the essence of the actors themselves
There is a fine line between judging, justice and being judgmental. It is being mindful, clear, calm and composed that allows us to act with equanimity and hopefully not to cross that line. We must always seek justice and fairness in all that we do.