This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses’ eloquent cry to the Jewish people to establish courts and to pursue justice:

You shall set up judges and law-enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the L‑rd, your G‑d, is giving you for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.

You shall not pervert justice, you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the L‑rd, your G‑d, is giving you.1

All agree that justice is important, but justice is elusive. Even in this great country, in the 21st century, there are serious questions whether our criminal justice system has a long way to go to ensure that every individual can expect equal access to justice.

One scholar recently made this argument in an op-ed piece:

Our justice system has become inaccessible to millions of poor people and so every day, we violate the “equal justice under law” motto engraved on the front of the grand United States Supreme Court. Americans who cannot afford legal help routinely forfeit basic rights as a result. Because the law does not enforce itself, veterans seeking benefits the nation has guaranteed, victims of domestic violence needing legal protection, and tenants and homeowners pursuing their rights since the financial disaster all need advisors and guides through the law and its agencies and courts.2

Writers often save the most powerful point for last. The last sentence is your chance to emphasize your point and to shape the impression your reader will take away.

The last section of this week’s Torah portion highlights the true test of justice. That final section describes the law of an unidentified murder victim lying in the field. The victim is not a prominent member of society who travels with an entourage. He is not a celebrity who is well known. The true test of justice is whether society will care about this crime. Whether society values the most vulnerable, lonely, least respected, unknown members of society.

How do we respond when an unknown victim is found slain? Do we ignore the case because there is no one to lobby for justice? On the contrary, the Torah demands that the most prominent members of society come down to the crime scene to investigate, to declare that they did not ignore the plight of this person, and to force the story into the headlines:

If a slain person be found in the land which the L‑rd, your G‑d, is giving you to possess, lying in the field, [and] it is not known who slew him . . .3

The Torah commands the members of the supreme court of Israel to drop everything they are doing, and that they—not their assistants or surrogates—should show up at the crime scene:

Then your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse.4

In the pre–mass media world, the surest way to create news, which in turn may encourage a possible witness to the crime to come forward, is for the members of the court to come and draw attention to the crime. They then proceed to perform an unusual ritual. Its purpose is to turn people’s attention to the terrible crime committed against someone they never heard of:

And it will be [that from] the city closest to the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a calf with which work has never been done, [and] that has never drawn a yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the calf down to a rugged valley, which cannot be worked and cannot be sown, and there in the valley, they shall decapitate the calf.5

The valley “cannot be worked and cannot be sown,” which means that there is a valuable piece of real estate that cannot be used until the case is solved. That serves two purposes: the fallow valley does not allow the murder to be forgotten, and the owner of the valley has a financial incentive to keep the pressure on the authorities to investigate the case.6

The Torah understands that the test of justice is not “at your gates”; it’s not how we treat the prominent members of society. Rather, the test of justice is whether the “elders and judges” will leave their ivory tower, leave the city, and search for justice for the unknown stranger.