Tzedek Tirdof – the pursuit of justice in acknowledging the history of our land

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb

Recently, in Parashat Pinchas, we read about the five daughters of Tzelophechad. 

In many contemporary Jewish communities, when we read this biblical tale, we focus on its notable implications for women. But the Torah is actually doing more than affirming women’s rights in relation to land inheritance. The Torah is also teaching us the importance of acknowledging the history of land and land-ownership. 

In South Africa, of course, this is an ongoing issue of importance, as it is in most countries with histories of colonialism. All over the world, well-meaning and good people live on land that at some point was taken from the indigenous population by force. 

As 21st century Jews, we can say that this history has nothing to do with us today, or we can lean into the Jewish values of Tirdof Tzedek (the pursuit of justice) and Tikkun Olam (the repair of our world), and educate ourselves about restorative justice and reparations in our world today by finding out what our governments are (or are not) doing to correct the injustices of history, and we can advocate for continued work in this area. Some parts of the world are well ahead of others in this process. In Canada, and in Australia and New Zealand, one way they address the history of injustice in relation to land ownership is by having and using land acknowledgements — statements at the beginning of ceremonies and events in public, faith-based, and education-related spaces. 

I want to share with you an example from my recent trip to Toronto, where I visited Temple Har Zion, the shul where I grew up. In their weekly ‘Daf’ equivalent, they include the following land acknowledgement: 

“At Temple Har Zion we acknowledge that we are situated on Traditional Territories and Treaty Lands. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, and the Metis Nation. As Jews and as a community, may we always strive to fulfil our Jewish value of Tzedek Tirdof — the pursuit of justice in our society. We pray for healing in the communities and families of all who experienced residential schools, comfort for all those grieving, and strength for all to pursue reconciliation.” 

As I read these powerful words, I wondered what it could mean, and what the impact might be for South African communities (faith-based and beyond) to begin to adopt a similar tradition. 

Perhaps it may one day begin with us.

Temple Israel

• Published in the August 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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