Justice, Mercy, and Joy

The Chofetz Chayim, a nineteenth century sage, was once asked to appear in court as a character witness for one of his students who had been accused of spying by the czarist police. The story goes that, before he summoned the rabbi to the witness stand, the lawyer approached the judge and said, “Your honor, the rabbi who is about to testify has an impeccable reputation among his fellow Jews. They say that one day he came home and saw a thief rummaging through his living room. The frightened thief climbed out a window and ran off with some of the rabbi’s possessions, and the rabbi ran after him, shouting, ‘I declare all my property ownerless,’ so that the thief would not be liable for the crime.” The judge looked at the lawyer with suspicion in his eyes: “Do you believe that story really happened?” “I don’t know, your honor,” the lawyer replied, “but they don’t tell stories like that about you and me.”

The story is ostensibly about reputation and how Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known by the title of his masterwork on the laws of ethical speech, earned his. But the true moral of the story, the underlying reason for Kagan’s renown, was his compassion. The Chofetz Chayim was someone who went out of his way to remove stumbling blocks from before the blind, to judge others for good. Bryan Stevenson titled his 2014 book Just Mercy to remind the reader that justice without mercy is fundamentally unjust.

There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 7a) about the tension between strict justice and compassion. After one rabbi suggests that God in heaven prays just as we humans do, the Talmud asks: “What then does God pray?” The response: “Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, ‘May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger.’”

The Rabbis of antiquity envision two thrones in heaven: a throne of strict judgment (din) and another of mercy (rachamim), with God oscillating between the two. Our Sages speculate that perhaps humanity doesn’t fully deserve the compassion God bestows upon us. “Rav Yehuda says in the name of Rav: There are twelve hours in the day. During the first three, the Holy One sits and engages in Torah study. During the second three hours, God sits and judges the entire world. Once the Holy One sees that the world has rendered itself liable to destruction, God arises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy [and the world is not destroyed]” (Avodah Zarah 3b).

I sometimes wonder why I felt called to serve a congregation like Beth Am whose nearly 50-year history in its 100-year-old building in Central-West Baltimore sets it apart from most American congregations. There isn’t a singular answer, of course. In part it’s because my parents chose to raise me in a socio-economically and racially diverse Chicago suburb where my commitment to pluralism was forged at a young age. No less important is my sincere belief that the essence of Jewish tradition is rooted in God’s desire for us to bring about a more just world.

But the mystic in me wonders if perhaps my very name, the Hebrew name bestowed upon me by my parents, foreshadowed my devotion to justice (and just mercy). I am named for my great-grandfather Yerachmiel, a name that means “May God have mercy.” My second Hebrew name is Daniel which means “God is my judge.” Which is to say, my parents (unknowingly but fittingly) chose to fashion my name according to the Talmudic teaching, placing the quality of mercy before that of strict justice.

Compassion seems out of fashion these days. In the torrent of revenge flicks or politicians and pundits calling for victory at any cost, unqualified justice reigns supreme. But remember the teaching above from Avodah Zarah; it is mercy that is life sustaining, and it is mercy in relationship with justice that ought to guide our actions as well. After The Holy One spends three hours studying Torah and another three judging the world, God moves to the throne of mercy. What, then, does God do with the final six hours in the twelve-hour day? The Talmud continues: “During the third set of three hours, the Holy One sits and sustains the entire world, from the horns of wild oxen to the eggs of lice. During the fourth three hours, God sits and makes sport with the leviathan, as it is stated: “There is leviathan, whom You made to play with” (Psalms 104:26).

Having chosen to save the world, God invests in its future, ensuring every creature, big and small, can play its part. The fruits of all this labor? After work, God gets to play. Leviathan is a mythical sea creature, God’s pet. The best analogy is to a human tossing a ball around with her dog in the fading light of an early evening after work.

What is sport? Why is leisure so important? Because the lives with which we’ve been entrusted must be lives worth living. There is justice. There is mercy that tempers our tendency to create more harm in response to injustice than the initial injustice itself. But then, after mercy, should we be open to it, there can be joy.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.