Letter 4

DAY 4

Marc Z. Brettler

Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies
Duke University
January 23, 2021

Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,

Four years ago, after the election results were announced, I wrote two biblical quotations in Hebrew on my office door, so that I would see them daily, be reminded of their truth, and be spurred to action.

The first was from Deuteronomy 16:20, which should be translated as: “After justice, after justice, must you chase (tzedek tzedek tirdof).” Most English translations miss how emphatic this command is. It repeats “justice” twice—as the medieval Jewish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra notes, this doubling implies that you must act justly time after time, whether it is to your advantage or disadvantage. The word I translated as “chase” is often incorrectly rendered less forcefully as “follow” or “pursue”—but it is a very physical “running” word. You do, and should, get tired from such sprinting—but it is essential to keep running after justice and to call out and to redress injustice, wherever you may find it.

“May this administration use scriptures well, to chase justice and to love the truth…”

My second quote is more tranquil and aims to counterbalance the frenetic image of the first: “love truth and shalom” (Zechariah 8:19). While guiding the Jews to recover from a traumatic national calamity, the prophet Zechariah was an optimist, proclaiming in one of my favorite Bible passages: “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zechariah 8:4-5). But this new society must be based on truth and shalom.  Typically that last word is translated as “peace,” which we so desperately hope for in these turbulent times. But its meaning here is “personal well-being” or “wholeness”—the main responsibility of government. Only through such wholeness can the young and old enjoy and benefit from life.

I believe that sections of all the world’s scriptures—including the Hebrew Bible, my scripture—have the ability to heal. May this administration use scriptures well, to chase justice and to love the truth, supporting the well-being and peace for all of us. I look forward to the day when this happens. When it does, I will no longer need these Bible verses as a reminder on my office door.

Shalom,

Marc Zvi Brettler

Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D., D.H.L.
Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies
Duke University

the author

Marc Z. Brettler, Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University, conducts research focused on the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation. He co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and The Jewish Study Bible; and he co-authored The Bible and the Believer (2012) and most recently, with Amy-Jill Levine, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently. His other works include How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007), as well as op-eds on the place of the Bible in American public life.