The “Steps” of Our Path

In this letter, we shall refer to Abraham, our father, by his Hebrew name, “Avraham”:


“Who aroused from the east the one whose every step proclaimed tzedek?” (Isaiah 41:2) – These are the steps of Avraham who came from the east. (Commentaries of the Targum, Rashi, and Radak)


“Whose every step proclaimed tzedek” – What is the meaning of tzedek? According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, tzedek is the higher and loving Divine justice. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, tzedek refers to the Divine plan and goal for creation where every creature is "entitled" to receive the nurturing and protection that it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation. This was the message which Avraham proclaimed through every step on his journey.

The steps which bring us closer to the tzedek ideal are known as tzedakah - a term which also specifically refers to the mitzvah of sharing our resources with those in need. The avoidance of steps which distance us from the tzedek ideal is known as mishpat.

(The above insights of Rabbi Hirsch can be found in his commentary on Genesis 15:6, and in his book on the mitzvos, “Horeb” –chapter 44.)


Dear Friends,


Avraham understood that a nation would emerge from him and Sarah that would become a blessing to “all the families of the earth” and lead humankind back to the Garden; thus, he passed on to his descendants the original Divine mandate “to serve and protect” the Divine creation (Genesis 2:15). The underlying principle of this mandate is “tzedek” – the higher and loving Divine justice that entitles each creature within creation to receive the nurturing and protection that it needs. As Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“Through the attribute of tzedek, every creature will have the benefit of the conditions intended for it by Divine design. Tzedek is the goal of God’s direction of the world.” (Commentary to Genesis 15:6).  


Avraham therefore passed on to future generations the way to reach this Divine goal. He taught his children to serve the Divine creation through “tzedakah” – actions which nurture and help others. And he taught his children to protect the Divine creation through “mishpat” – the avoidance of actions which harm or exploit others. As a result of Avraham’s efforts, the Compassionate One said:


"For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One, doing tzedakah and mishpat" (Ibid. l8:19).


The legacy of Avraham prepared his descendants for the receiving of the Torah, for the mitzvos of the Torah path are “steps” of tzedek, as it is written:


"My tongue shall proclaim Your word, for all your mitzvos are tzedek." (Psalm 119:172)


In what way are all the mitzvos steps of tzedek? An answer can be found in Rabbi Hirsch’s classical work on the mitzvos, "Horeb" (chapter 44). Rabbi Hirsch explains that some of the mitzvos are acts of tzedek to human beings, while other mitzvos are acts of tzedek towards the living creatures of the earth and the earth itself. In addition, there are mitzvos which teach us how to do acts of tzedek to ourselves by nurturing our bodies and souls.


The mitzvos of the Torah known as “Mitzvos Lo Sa’Asay” - Divine prohibitions - also express the principle of tzedek, since they prevent us from acting unjustly towards any of the above through words or deeds.


A convert joins the People of Israel through a commitment to fulfilling all of the mitzvos of the Torah – the steps on the path of tzedek. Just as the People of Israel have a Divine mandate to fulfill all the mitzvos of this path, so does the convert, as it is written: "There shall be one Torah and one law for you and for the convert who sojourns among you" (Numbers 15:16). The convert who accepts this Divine mandate becomes part of a people that is dedicated to tzedek, as the Compassionate One proclaimed to the People of Israel: "I am the Compassionate One, I have called you on behalf of tzedek" (Isaiah 42:6).


In this spirit, Jewish tradition calls a convert a "ger tzedek" - a convert for tzedek. We do not call a convert a "ger tzadik" - a righteous convert, but a "ger tzedek" - a convert who is committed to the Torah's path of tzedek.


We, the People of the Torah, are to become tzedek activists as it is written, “Tzedek, tzedek, shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). In order to become tzedek activists, however, we must first return to our roots. As the Prophet proclaimed:


“Listen to me, pursuers of tzedek, seekers of the Compassionate One: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Avraham, your father, and to Sarah, who will give birth to you. (Isaiah 51:1,2)


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. According to Jewish tradition, the converts who commit themselves to the Torah path of tzedek are also considered to be the children of Avraham and Sarah. In fact, each convert is given a Hebrew name with the following additional words: son or daughter of Avraham and Sarah. For example, when we pray for those who are ill, we cite their Hebrew name and their mother's Hebrew name. If a male convert chose the Hebrew name "Ovadiah" and later became ill, we would pray for "Ovadiah ben Sarah."


2. People who follow the Torah path of tzedek are called “tzadikim.” When we become tzadikim who strive for tzedek, we can inherit the Promised Land, as it is written, “Tzedek, tzedek, shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that the Compassionate One, your God, gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). And there is a Divine promise that we will eventually achieve this goal: “Your people will all be tzadikim; they will inherit the  Land forever as the blossoming shoot of My planting, My handiwork in which I will glory.” (Isaiah 60:21)

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