Kol Nidre/Erev Yom Kippur 5781: Justice and Mercy
Last year while waiting for a connecting flight to Milwaukee from Philadelphia in route back from Israel, I ran into dear friends who were also former congregants of mine. While catching each other up they shared we with me a terrible dilemma they were facing.
Their young adult son was wreaking havoc on their lives. Despite every kind of therapy and coaching, forbearance and forgiveness, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th chances, more love and compassion than one could imagine, their son continued to violate their trust and cross every boundary. With no sign of a commitment to change, and fearful of his angry and violent outbursts, our friends had reached their outer limits. A line had to be drawn.
So, they made one of the hardest decisions of their lives. They told their son he would have to move out of their home and live somewhere else. He would not be welcome back until he could demonstrate a change of attitude and behavior, self-control, and respect for others.
As I sat with them, tears flowed from their eyes, and it was hard for me to keep my tears in check. I knew their son well. I officiated at his bar mitzvah, when he was confirmed along with his friends, and while he lay in the E.R. in the aftermath of a terrible accident.
Their beautiful child who had brought them such joy had become a source of excruciating pain, and it was heartbreaking to witness.
I tried to console them, reminding them what good, loving, caring, and supportive parents they had been and that they had done nothing to cause this, or to deserve it. I meant it. I’ve know them long enough and well enough to say this with complete conviction.
They were doing the right thing, I assured them, for themselves and for their son. As the Talmud teaches, we all need to have a “yes” that means “yes,” and a “no” that means “no.” We have to set limits, as hard as that may be at times. Because in the absence of boundaries there is chaos.
The Torah tells us that God created the world as a place of order by establishing boundaries, both physical and moral. God separated day from night, earth from sky, and land from sea. And God said, “thou shalt, and thou shalt not.”
The world God created is a place of boundaries, limits and judgment, what we call in Hebrew, din. The sun rises and sets. We are born and we die. Some things are right, and some are wrong. God set limits, and so must we. There is din in God’s world. And as my dear friends know, there must be in ours, as well.
Thank God, though, that the world is not just a place of din. It is also a place of rahamim, of love and compassion, understanding and forgiveness. My friends have not given up on their son. That would be unthinkable, like severing a limb from their body. Day by day they await his return, urging him on, reminding him what he can be, reminding him that he is loved.
My message to you on this holy day is not a simple one. But, as one of my teachers says, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be clear.
The world exists in a delicate balance between din and rahamim, justice and mercy. Too much of either can cause great harm. We need gentleness and compassion to soften the harshness of din, and we need limits, boundaries and judgment to prevent life from spinning out of control. Finding that balance is a challenge every one of us has to face.
Din is not a pleasant thing. No one likes to be constrained. As children we balk at being told to go to bed, to clean our rooms, to do our homework, and part of us never outgrows this impulse.
We know there have to be limits, but we prefer when they apply to others. Many of us consider 75 miles an hour to be the suggested speed on I-90. But the guy who got pulled over by the car with the flashing lights; he got what he deserved!
Everybody wants to see other people pay taxes, especially if they’re running for president! But is there such a thing as a bad deduction when it applies to us?
We all want understanding for the hurts we cause. We all want to be forgiven, and quickly! But are we quick to forgive others? Somehow the wounds we suffer seem more consequential than the ones we inflict.
When judging other people we should remember how painful it is to be on the receiving end, and we should recall the words of the great sage Hillel who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others;” and the words of Shimon Ha-Tzadik, who taught, “he-yu m’tu-nim ba-din.” “Be moderate in judgment.”
One of the attributes of God is Dayan ha-emet, the Righteous Judge. The psalmist says God “judges the world with integrity.” We speak of God in these ways not to flatter God, but to inspire ourselves to act this way.
So is there a credibility gap between the ways we judge others and the way we judge ourselves? Do we expect things of others, especially those whom we love, that we don’t demand of ourselves?
These are important questions to ponder on this holy day, and to continue asking ourselves when we return to our daily routines.
As for the matter of God’s justice, one direction my friends did not go in their struggle with their son was to ask questions like, “What did we do to deserve this?” Or even worse, “Why is God doing this to us?”
They did nothing to deserve what was happening, and, thankfully, they knew it. They also didn’t they believe that God was punishing their family.
But many people do believe God works that way. And there is plenty of evidence in our tradition to support that view. As the Talmud says, “One who sees sufferings come upon him, should examine his deeds.” (Berahot 5a)
This is of course, so he can identify what he did to deserve his punishment, repent and be restored to God’s graces. This theology is grounded in the view expressed by Rabbi Hanina that “No [person] injures his finger here on earth unless it was decreed for him in heaven.” (Hulin 7b)
In the prayer U’netaneh Tokef we say: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: … who shall live and who shall die … who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst… but repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”
I am moved by the poetry of this prayer, and I embrace the message that God cares about us, and about the choices we make. I believe God has made a world of limits. I just don’t believe that God enforces them.
I don’t believe that God gives people the novel Coronavirus. There is too much evidence to the contrary. Too many good people suffer, and too many rotten people prosper to believe that God “sets the bounds of every creature’s life… decreeing its destiny.”
Read the daily obituaries in The New York Times of those people who have died from COVID-19 and you will see that no one has been spared: scientists who have saved millions because of the their discoveries and inventions; philanthropists who have lessened the misery of others, teachers who have educated generations; artists of all kinds who have brought beauty to our world; doctors, nurses, and other medical workers who healed the ill and broken. It has taken young and old, alike.
On the other hand, those who oppress, who destroy, who steal, who either intentionally or because of incompetence contributed to the Coronavirus crisis, remain healthy and well.
Is this blasphemy? Is it heresy for a Rabbi to stand before his or her congregation on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and declare that God does not administer justice in the world!?
If it is, then I am in the good company of the Sages who shared this view. As we read in the Talmud: (Avoda Zara 54b)
“… if someone steals seeds and plants them, din hu, justice demands that they should not sprout. And if a woman is raped, din hu, justice demands that she not conceive. But, “say the rabbis, “o-lam k’min ha-gon no-heig, the world follows fixed ways,” so stolen seeds sprout like any others, and, tragically, victims of rape do get pregnant.
God does not micromanage the universe. With all due respect to Rabbi Hanina, I don’t agree that God controls everything on earth. The choices we make are our own – for better or for worse – because God gave us free will.
With all due respect to the insurance companies, hurricanes, tornados and floods cause us harm, not because they are acts of God, but because the laws of nature are morally blind.
Yes, as we have learned all-too well these last seven months, the laws of nature are morally blind, but, thank God, we are not!
God gave us the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and commanded us to administer justice. As we learn in Dt. 16, “Sho-ftim v’shot-rim, ti-tein l’kha… Judges and magistrates you shall appoint in all your settlements, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Dt. 16:18) Or as the prophet Amos said: “Hate evil, love the good, and establish justice in the gate.” (5:15)
It is our job to see that those who steal seeds and commit rape are brought to justice. It is our responsibility to punish those who defraud their neighbors or commit acts of violence.
It is our responsibility to put aside our self-interest and entitlement and act responsibly and to put on a mask to help save the lives of others. God will not do it for us. But when we do, we have to be very careful to temper din with rahamim, justice with mercy.
We have to be loving, kind, compassionate and forgiving, as God is with us. And we must remember that we are not God. We are fallible and so we make mistakes.
Commenting on the verse: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” Rashi notes the repetition of the word tzedek, and says, “this means that justice must be pursued with justice.”
For example: The Torah prescribes capital punishment for those who commit murder. But for fear of executing even one innocent person, the rabbis virtually eliminated the practice.
Since I began studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute I have preached and taught others that we need to be more humble about what we claim to know.
Today, I urge us to be more humble in our judgments. Especially when we are God’s agents of din, and life and death are in our hands, we should pray as the Talmud imagines God prays before God judges us: “Y’hi ra-tzon mil-fa-nai, May it be My will, that My compassion will overcome My anger…” (Berakhot 7a)
In his final words to our people Moses reminds us, that God has placed before us “life and death… blessing and curse. Choose life!” says God, “that you and your descendants may live…”
It sounds so simple, unfortunately it’s not. I wish I could tell you that to choose life means to be compassionate and forgiving all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, as the following true story makes painfully clear.
When Joe Kennedy III, who just lost a primary challenge to Senator Ed Markey, was an assistant district attorney on Cape Cod he found himself prosecuting a young man on drug charges. The boy was a repeat offender and his life was a mess.
To Kennedy’s surprise, before the hearing, which took place on a Friday, the boy’s father approached him and pleaded with him to keep his son in jail over the weekend.
Arrangements had been made for the boy to enter a drug treatment program on Monday, and the father feared that despite all the remorse and regret his son would, and did express before the court, terrible things would happen if his son was set free for the weekend.
Here’s was a loving caring father pleading for his son to be incarcerated, asking for din, for judgment, not for rahamim! The man was choosing life for his son.
But that’s not the end of the story. Sometime later when Kennedy was campaigning for Congress, he told this story at a parlor meeting. When he finished speaking a man came up to him and said: “you just told my story. Only in my case it had a different ending. You see, the judge didn’t keep my son in jail, and we lost him.”
We can’t live in a world that is all din. It would be untenable, unlivable. We also can’t we live in a world that is all rahamim.
We would destroy ourselves.
As I shared in a recent sermon the Midrash explains this by way of a parable about a king who had some empty glasses. He said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst from the heat; if I pour cold water, they will snap.” What did he do? He mixed the hot and cold water together, poured it into them, and they endured.
This is what God said, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. Therefore, I will create it with a combination of mercy and justice so it may endure.” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15)
My friends continue to struggle with their son, whom they love with all their hearts and souls, as all of us struggle to balance din and rahamim in our lives and with those we love. They will never give up on him, as God never gives up on us, but he has to do his part.
This is the central message of this holy day. God loves us and awaits our return. God is ready to forgive us if only we will take responsibility for our misdeeds, repent and make amends, if only we will do our part. If only we will act responsibly.
When we do, when we seek to return to God, we will find that God is near.
A touching Chassidic story shows us how:
The story goes that a king and his son had become estranged, and the son had moved far, far away to a distant land. For many years there was no communication between them.
After a long period, however, the father sent a message asking his son to return home.
The son was at a distance of a hundred-day journey from his father. His friends pleaded with him, “Return to your father.” But with tears in his eyes, the son said to them, “I can’t. The way is too far.”
The king sent a second message: “Meet me halfway, and I will meet you halfway.” Again, the son sadly responded, “I can’t. The way is still too far.” Then the father sent a third message: “My son, go as far as you’re able, and I’ll come the rest of the way to you.”
May every wandering soul find his or her way home; home to God, home to loved ones, home to their truest and best selves. May God turn our hearts to one another that this year may be one of love and favor, of good health for us all.
We continue with “Ki Hinei Kahomer,” p. 227
– Rabbi Jacob Herber