You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you . . .
Deuteronomy Rabbah, Shof'tim, 3
This bears out what the Scripture says, To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3). Scripture does not say, As much as sacrifice, but "More than sacrifice". How? Sacrifices were operative only so long as the Temple stood, but righteousness and justice held good during the time when the Temple stood and also hold good now when the Temple is no longer.
Another explanation: Sacrifices atone only for sins committed unwittingly, but righteousness and justice alone atone for sins committed both unwittingly and presumptuously.
Another explanation: Sacrifices are practiced only by those below (i.e., humankind), but righteousness and justice by those on high (angels) and those below.
Another explanation: Sacrifices are operative only in this world, but righteousness and justice are operative both in this world and in the World to Come.
Standing in the ashes of the Temple, how was one to be forgiven for sin? In those first generations of Jewish life after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, what signified piety, remorse, a change of heart? What act could cleanse one of wrongdoing?
And for us, standing 2,000 years after the Destruction but also metaphorically in the ashes of a temple that collapsed on 9 Av a few short weeks ago, what can we do to return to a path of righteous living and wholehearted commitment to doing good?
The Temple was an edifice that could be destroyed, but our acts of righteousness and justice—so the Midrash teaches us—are eternal. They are actually preferred by God, atoning for both witting and accidental wrongs—a bold statement of those early rabbis, and one whose message endures for those of us on the august trajectory from Av to Elul to Tishrei. From despair over the pain we've endured, to thinking about the pain we've caused, to seeking—and meriting—atonement and a fresh start.
Instead of focusing on the past—on the ashes of Jewish life behind us or the trials of a year gone by—we are to recommit ourselves to those ideals we knew, last Yom Kippur, are the most important in life. We are to seek out opportunities to do what is right, to help people in need, to pursue justice in an unjust world. We are to personally fulfill the mitzvah of those opening lines of Shof'tim: Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .