In many Jewish weddings I have officiated at over the years, the bride and groom have chosen to add to the traditional vows these words from the prophet Hosea: V’eirastich Li b’tzedek uv’mishpat uv’chesed uv’rachamim, “I will betroth you to Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in mercy” (Hosea 2:21). While the traditional vows reflect the view of Jewish marriage as a legal institution, Hosea’s words reflect marriage as a sacred partnership born of mutual love and respect. Hosea, of course, was using the language of marriage as a description for the relationship between God and Israel, challenging Israel to be faithful and chastising her when she strayed.
But the onus in this relationship is not entirely on Israel, as we discover in this week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim. Here, God calls on the Israelites to “appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). “Due justice” is the way the modern JPS translation renders the combination phrase mishpat tzedek, the first two of Hosea’s pledges. But what about chesed, “loving-kindness”? What about rachamim, “mercy”? Are we not also to consider these qualities in our courts of law?
The Chatam Sofer, a prominent sage in early nineteenth century Hungary, taught that the betrothal between God and Israel could take place only if both brought something to the relationship. He quoted the Midrash as saying that “God supplies the loving-kindness and mercy, while we supply the righteousness and justice” — and that, in fact, it is only in the light of God’s loving-kindness and mercy that we can dispense due justice.1 So yes, we are to consider those qualities. But the Chatam Sofer infers that they don’t come as naturally to us as they do to God.
That may seem counterintuitive, considering how often the Israelite God is stereotypically depicted in popular discourse as angry and vengeful. But that stereotype disintegrates as we move through this parashah and see just how often God gives us rules designed to mitigate our human instinct to pass judgment without a sense of Divine compassion.
In war, for example, God decrees that an enemy town must first be approached with a peace offer (Deuteronomy 20:10), and scorched-earth battle plans that would destroy vegetation are forbidden (20:19). And even after calling for death to idolaters (20:15-18), God declares that “a person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses” (17:6) and insists that the witnesses themselves cast the first stone (17:7), so as to avert death in vengeance or anger. The same holds for the creation of the “cities of refuge,” designed to protect those who have accidentally caused the death of another from being avenged by victims’ families (19:1-6). Even false prophets, who could destroy the entire community by leading them astray in idol worship, “shall die” — but by God’s actions, not at human hands (18:19-20).
In all of these cases, misphat tzedek is tempered with chesed v’rachamim, humanity’s default mechanism in balance with God’s.
Yet I think it is not for the sake of the “other” alone that God tempers our — well, our tempers. When we are seized and guided by anger, resentment, envy, or a desire for vengeance, we may be out to hurt somebody else without realizing how much we are hurting ourselves. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbis teach from Proverbs: “It is written, But envy is the rottenness of the bones: he who has envy in his heart, his bones rot away [but] he who has no envy in his heart, his bones do not rot away.”2
When we talk about envy or anger eating away at us, we mean it figuratively — but the Rabbis warn us that it has literal, physical consequences. Think about a time when you’ve felt slighted or been jealous of somebody else’s recognition or gotten into a petty dispute. That stomach ache or pain in the back of your neck won’t go away with a dose of Pepto-Bismol or a couple of aspirin. Perhaps, when Isaiah declares, in this week’s Haftarah of Consolation, “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself in strength, O Zion!” (Isaiah 52:1) it is more than a prophecy of communal redemption, but also a message of personal renewal. Perhaps it is a call for each of us to dig deep and find the strength within ourselves to temper our instinctive desire for justice with the Divine gift of mercy.
The Torah sage Isaac Abravanel (fifteenth century, Portugal) asks: Why, in the beginning of this Torah portion, are judges warned three times — in verses 18, 19, and 20 — to judge fairly?3 His question reflects the Rabbinic belief that no word in the Torah is superfluous, so seeming repetition must be more than that. I would suggest that we might find the answer in the three-fold teaching by the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice (mishpat) and to love goodness (chesed) and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). A meaningful relationship with God and healthy relationships with others require the best of both worlds.
1. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, comp., Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein, trans., Torah Gems, Vol. III Bamidbar/Devarim (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1998), pp. 251-252
2. Proverbs 14:30, Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152b
3. Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015), p. 113
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she was ordained in 1999.
Rabbi Korotkin offers a perspective on Shof’tim in which God’s mercy compensates for the human need for justice—a need that can morph into an unholy vengeance. Yet mercy misapplied can be just as tyrannical as overzealous justice. Parashat Shof’tim emphasizes not how to temper justice with mercy but rather how to carry it out effectively.
The parashah opens with a three-pronged statement about justice. While Isaac Abravanel understands these three verses to be a repetition of the commandment to judge fairly, one could interpret them instead as a more comprehensive reflection on the law. The Torah first offers the imperative, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). How do they govern with due justice? The next verse tells us: “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” (Deuteronomy 16:19). And if our society does this, what happens? “You may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
These three verses give us the “what,” the “how,” and then the “why.” They also indicate a greater concern about the misuse of mercy than of justice. The text recognizes that we may be too lenient and overlook the need for justice on account of a favored relationship, or more crassly, money.
Excessive mercy can destroy a person and a society just as easily as fanatical justice. When Musar literature speaks of the trait of mercy, it cautions against its overuse because we may allow the guilty “to follow the evil promptings of his heart. Such pity despoils him and deprives him of life in the World-to-Come.”1 Justice is no less divine than mercy. We as humans just need some extra help to know what to use when.
- Rabbi Shraga Silverstein, trans., The Ways of the Tzaddikim: On Refining Character Traits and Maintaining Balance in All Matters (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1995)
Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.
Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164