Balancing Justice and Mercy

Part 1: By Yoni Segal, in the morning of 6 October 2012, commenting on Exodus 34: 6-7.

You all know the wonderful description of the Thirteen Attributes of G-d that we recite on the High Holidays:

יְהֹוָה יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה

"O Lord, O Lord, G-d who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth, who keeps mercy for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who clears the guilty."

In today's Torah portion, these same words of forgiveness and mercy are chanted, but with a little more.  It continues from there, tempering the mercy with justice: וְנַקֵּה, meaning "who clears the guilty", becomes וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה, which is typically translated as "will by no means clear the guilty".

It then continues:
פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רבֵּעִים

This means "punishing the children and the children's children for the fathers' iniquity, to the 3rd and the 4th generation".  Ouch!  Those additions sound very un-forgiving, exactly the opposite of our prayer version!  It seems as if our prayer omits the two unforgiving parts, the parts about justice. 

What is going on here?  Why is justice left out?

It gets even more complicated: even today's Torah portion is not the complete version.  The part about punishing to the 4th generation appears earlier in Exodus, but there, it's more forgiving.  It adds the one word, לְשֹׂנְאָי, meaning that the punishment to the 4th generation is restricted to "those who hate me", that is "those who hate G-d".  The complete version, re-tempers the justice with mercy.

Not only does the Torah have a forgiving version of the 4th generation punishment, the Talmud has a forgiving interpretation of the part about clearing the guilty.  In tractate Yoma, Rabbi אלעזר makes the argument that וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה doesn't mean "will by no means clear the guilty", but instead refers to either clearing, or not clearing the guilty.  Rabbi אלעזר reads the Torah quote as saying that G-d ""clears the guilt" of those who repent, and does not "clear the guilt" of those who do not repent."  In other words, both the Torah and the Talmud put the outcome in our hands. 

So, why do we leave out the unforgiving parts in our High Holiday prayers?  On the High Holidays, we proclaim that we're repenting.  So, all the parts of the complete version about not repenting just don't apply.  Since repentance can be accepted, we can just leave out the parts about not repenting, since we are repenting. 

In today's Torah portion, G-d is doing the opposite of what we do during prayer - expressing concern that we won't repent, and making clear the bad consequences. 

Both the prayer version and G-d's version from today's reading fit with the complete version:

It is fitting that we read G-d's non-repenting version on Sukkot.  Just in case we lulled ourselves into a false sense of security on Yom Kippur, we clash it with the scary version in Exodus.  Putting the prayer version and the scary Exodus version together so close in time gives us the complete version.  This combination of two versions serves as a reminder to follow through on repentance, and get the best of both worlds: justice and mercy. 

Part 2: By Michael Segal, in the afternoon of 6 October 2012, commenting on Genesis 1: 1-13.

What can you say about the first few lines of the bible that is new and interesting?  I wasn't able to come up with anything new, but I did find something interesting, and it was interesting because it wasn't new.  In fact, it was so not-new, that our son Yoni made exactly the same point in his talk about Exodus this morning. 

Even those of you who heard Yoni's talk are probably wondering what his talk had to do with the first few lines in the bible.  So let me summarize Yoni's main point in a few sentences.  He pointed out that the text of the 13 Attributes of G-d comes from this morning's Torah portion from Exodus, and the text is spun with the theme of Justice far more than the theme of Mercy.  Yet, we also said a version of the 13 Attributes repeatedly during the High Holidays, a version that is a partial quote from today's version, and actually cut off in the middle of a phrase to give it a spin of Mercy.  Yoni then went on to resolve this puzzle by demonstrating that both the Justice and Mercy versions are subsets of a more complete version, as shown by a quote elsewhere in Exodus and discussed at some length in the Babylonian Talmud.  This more complete version combined both Justice and Mercy, and each of the other two versions were spinning that complete version to make a point.  

So what in the world does this have to do with the creation of the world?  The answer is right there in the first line, which we all know well:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.

So what does this have to do with Mercy or Justice?  Rashi explains that the word Elohim refers to the element of Justice in G-d, and that G-d's original plan was to run the world according to Justice alone.  So how did that work out?  This afternoon we read about the first 3 days of creation, then there are 3 more days of creation, and then a few lines describing the Sabbath, which we read as Kiddush on Shabbat.  Then the text goes back to the first day of creation:

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם: בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים--אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth, as they were created on the day G-d created the earth and the heavens.

This is a re-do of Day 1, but with a difference: Elohim in Creation has now become Adonai Elohim. Rashi explains that the word Adonai is used to describe the element of Mercy in G-d, and that G-d soon figured out that basing the world on Justice alone was a mistake.  The bug fix was to add Mercy.  This wasn't the sort of bug fix that could wait until the second Tuesday of the month.  This was the sort of bug that you fix first thing after Shabbat, after the first Shabbat.  This addition of Mercy to Justice is the Mother of All Bug Fixes.

So what can we learn from this:

So, there is a lot to learn from the first few lines in the bible, even if it isn't new.  It just takes a while to sink in.

Copyright © 2012 by Yoni Segal and Michael Segal.  These talks are part of the Segal leadership series.