Justice and Mercy Are Jewish Love
Justice and Mercy Are Jewish Love
When was the last time I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself? Just asking the question, without even making a list or acting upon it, can cause some consternation. After all, who among us hasn’t crossed a line, fallen back, or hurt others with our choices? If I consider the ways I have sinned against others — those I love and those I don’t — how can I put myself back on track?
Those familiar with the 12 steps for addiction recovery, first introduced by Alcoholics Anonymous, recognize taking a moral inventory as the fourth step. I learned from Harriet Rossetto, co-founder of Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, that everyone can benefit from following the 12 steps and living as if we are in recovery. The notion of making a fearless moral inventory, and the subsequent steps of what to do with our realizations, are in line with how we live as just and merciful people trying to follow Judaism.
When our ancestors stood at the base of Mt. Sinai anticipating the gift of Torah, the excitement in the air was palpable. Torah would be a tangible symbol of God’s love. Like a parent who establishes rules in the household, God’s boundaries would help us refine our behavior to be our best. Yet, like children who know the expectations, we fall short and disappoint God.
There are three important principles laid out in Torah that we cannot review often enough. These are:
- Love those who are like you (Leviticus 19:18)
- Love those who are different from you (Leviticus 19:34)
- Love the Eternal your God (Deuteronomy 6:5)
To live by these three commandments, we must ask: What is love? Love in the Torah is not an emotion, it is how we behave. We learn about love from how God treats us. We are taught that YHVH (Adonai) is a name of God particularly associated with mercy. Elohim represents God’s attributes of justice. As these are two primary names for God in the Torah, we learn that God loves us through justice and mercy. Similarly, when we act with justice and mercy, we fulfill the commandments to love our fellow, the stranger in our midst, and the Eternal One.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, YHVH reminds Moses, “Speak to the Israelites: When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:6-7).
How do we know we have broken faith and wronged others? Through our searching and fearless moral inventory.
Despite our best intentions and religious teachings, we cannot force someone else to admit their crimes and willingly take action to try to repair the damage. So what is our response when we are not treated with justice and mercy?
A story is told in the BabylonianTalmud (Brachot 10a) of Rabbi Meir traveling on a road where there were hooligans. One afternoon his wife Beruria heard him pray that the men would die. He thought this would be merciful: they would go to the world-to-come and benefit from whatever good they had done thus far in their lives, and by ceasing to live they would not accumulate any more sins for which their souls would have to suffer.
Rabbi Meir relied on Psalm 104:35, telling Beruria it says: Let sinners cease from the earth. Beruria countered that the correct reading of the Hebrew is: Let that which causes sin to happen cease from the earth.
Rabbi Meir came to understand that a true prayer of mercy and justice for these men would be one that called for them to recognize their sins, pay restitution, apologize, and change their ways.
Vengeance may entice us, but it is not justice. Spite can be alluring, but it is not mercy. Torah instructs us to be better humans by doing the hard and holy work of love: distributing justice to the unjust, mercy to the merciless. Religious love seeks a balance of justice and mercy.
Religious instruction tells us to act with justice and mercy towards those who are like us and those who are not: gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, family, religion, political party, socio-economic class, whatever. When someone violates the ethic to love another regardless of how alike or different the other is, we are to deliver justice tempered with mercy. A victim can love his or her perpetrator by insisting upon the most stringent consequences appropriate for the violation. Mercy begins at the outlying border of justice to guard us from going too far.
When we violate the ethic to love others, we are to admit our error and follow a path of bringing justice to the situation despite our own discomfort or shame.
The commandments to love are given to help us grow in righteousness. They aren’t only for those who show us justice and mercy; they are also for those who do not love us back.
Our obligation to reflect and take responsibility is confirmed in Parashat Naso. As part of the bigger picture of Torah, we are reminded that by instituting justice and mercy in our lives, we are creating a more love-filled world.
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.
When I was nearing the completion of my college years and looking toward the next stage of my life, my goal was to “change the world.” Like many idealistic twenty-somethings, I spent more time focused on fixing the flaws of the world around me than on fixing my own. I believed that change was all about the macro: ending starvation and homelessness, promoting peace in Israel, and so on. But as I entered the congregational world and began observing the righteous acts of congregants and those around me, I suddenly realized that great change often comes from the smaller deeds of individuals. Yet what I often failed to remember was that changing my own failings and faults could be the impetus or stepping stones for larger changes in the world.
Rabbi Harris pulls great insight from this portion in reminding us to look inward, and seek justice and mercy in our lives. The same way she directs us to look inward at this commandment to acknowledge and make restitution to someone we have wronged, I might suggest that we use her wisdom and look inward with every commandment in the Torah. In contrast to the words in this Torah text written in the third person (“When men or women … they shall confess …” Numbers 5:6-7), I believe that every directive in the Torah may be thought of in the first person — as if it were written for us. Just as at the Passover seder we recite the words, “It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt,” so, too, can each commandment be read as if it were directed to each one of us individually.
So before we set out to change the world, let us ask ourselves the most important question: “Am I ready to change myself first?”
Rabbi Steven H. Rau, RJE, is director of lifelong learning at The Temple – Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, GA.
Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043−1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921−945
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 815–842
Haftarah, Judges 13:2−25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,256−1,258; Revised Edition, pp. pp. 947−949