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Mishpat Ve-Hesed: Love and Justice

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Let us consider the enormity of the changes we've seen in our own lifetimes. Just within the last 20, 30, 40 years, the sweeping changes that we thought could never happen in the world have now become commonplace. I have to remind my 21 year-old daughter that you can rely on your phone to make calls -- she uses it for almost everything but talking. We take for granted that we communicate around the globe instantaneously: an act of tyranny in some distant corner of the world is now recorded on someone's phone, disseminated through the Internet, and the whole world has a front row seat. Even the congregations have not been immune to these changes. I will point out that 40 years ago many of us would not have been on this continent (or some on this planet), those of us living then would have been in a room in a very distant part of the world, and we would not have had the option of listening to strong, beautiful women chanting the words of the prophets for us, nor could we have imagined public discussions about the historical accuracy of biblical events or whether or not clergy ought to condemn or celebrate love's diversity.

With all of this tempestuous variation, it is time to pose the question: What is Judaism's bottom line? In a world in which everything changes, in which marketing often dictates the spin we give to whatever it is we are about to do, what in Judaism isn't negotiable? What in Judaism remains so crucial that if you got rid of that heart, there would be no Judaism left alive?

What Is The Bottom Line?

There is a brilliant Midrash that imagines that on Rosh Ha-Shanah God starts the day utilizing the Throne of Judgment (kisei ha-din) until the prayers of the people Israel persuade God to shift from that chair and instead to rely on the Throne of Mercy (kisei ha-rachamim). Judgment and mercy are what Rosh Hashanah is all about. But those are just two different ways of saying larger values that for me form the basis of our entire tradition. Judgment is when there is a strict correspondence between people's behavior and the consequences, where you don't ask questions about motivation, you don't ask questions about background, you don't ask about extenuating circumstances. "If you did this, then here are the consequences." That's judgment, which is just another way of saying: Justice, Mishpat. And strict justice is one of the pillars of our tradition, indeed of civilization. But justice by itself becomes unjust if we disregard motives, context, background. If we never find out why that person behaved in a particular way; what caused them not to act in the way we want them to act; we really can't understand what is just for that particular case. Any legal system, any religious system that imposes a strict correspondence between external behavior and invariable consequence, while committed to a very superficial kind of justice, ultimately becomes cruel. Justice must be tempered by love, hesed. That's what mercy is. Love is understanding that the deed wasn't proper, but our compassion for the individual is so strong, our recognition of the complex factors that led that person to make a wrong choice, drive us to overlook, or at least, to contextualize the erroneous behavior. Anyone who has been married for more than 10 minutes knows the importance of overlooking acts which, in strict justice, would require punishment.

Hesed u-Mishpat, love and justice, are Judaism's bottom line.

Now that's an odd thing to say for a millennial tradition that boasts countless magnificent sanctuaries, voluminous sacred scriptures and poetic liturgies, abundant commandments and rituals, and ample cultural traditions, all of which I cherish.

I want to be explicit about what makes these edifices, liturgies, commandments and customs worthy of passing along to a next generation. Here's what I know: all people thirst for justice. We, all of us, yearn to live in a world in which human dignity is affirmed for all of us, in which there are no insiders and no outsiders, no people who are marginal, no people who are considered less, or who are insignificant, who are ignored. We yearn for a world in which anyone can walk down the street in safety and know that they will reach their destination unharmed. You pick up whatever tablet you get your news on today: this week alone we read of atrocities of an irate ex-girlfriend who tried to smother her ex-boyfriend's baby son, of women who are raped trying to get to school or get across the street, of slavery which has revived in our time, so that there are more slaves today around the world than at any time in human history, of a stream of avoidable gun deaths, overdoses, bridge collapses. And a piece of us is sickened when we read such news. This is a world that is hungering for justice, for there are consequences to actions of evil and barbarity. We starve for justice. But justice is not all we yearn for. As human beings we have a built-in need to be loved. We seek to create a world of compassion and welcome so that all are embraced.

Let me share two ancient stories which, for me, frame our entire tradition. The Torah really is the echo of two great foundational narratives, true not on the level of fact but on the level of meaning.

The first great story in the Torah is of a God who yearns to bestow love. To be able to be loving, God has to create an other, a someone who can receive that love and reciprocate it. So God creates an entire cosmos so that somewhere there might develop a creature with sufficient consciousness that can receive God's love and respond to it in kind. And if that reciprocal generating love isn't enough, the Torah also tells us that we humans are uniquely reflective of God's image, so that if God needs to bestow and receive love, then we are most God-like when we are also receiving and giving love to each other. Hesed, love, is the bottom line of Judaism's first grand narrative.

The second great story of the Torah is of a small group of Semites who wander down into Egypt to avoid starvation, there they are enslaved, despised, and there they are considered to be to'evot - abominable. The God of the Hebrews hears the cries of the outcast; this God favors the cause of the weak, the despised, and the outcast. God goes down to Egypt to liberate those Hebrew slaves and to vanquish Pharaoh. This story is more true than mere history; this dynamic arc toward freedom continues to be operative at all times and in every place. The God of Israel is a God of justice, correctly recognized to be the enemy of the Ayatollah's, the Führers, the Commissar's, and all the despots who would trample the human soul. Mishpat, justice, is the bottom line of Judaism's second grand narrative.

Love and Justice

There is not a commandment in the Torah that is not devoted to advancing those intertwining purposes. There is no a single commandment in the Talmud and law codes that is not about advancing love and justice. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Jewish people, behave in such a way that when the gentiles look at you, a fair-minded person will say, 'What a wise God to have given such a way of life'. Anytime a Jew does something that a well-meaning Gentile would witness and consider idiotic or cruel -- even if what that Jew is doing comes from the Shulchan Arukh, medieval Judaism's most influential law code, the Torah insists that such an act can not constitute real Judaism. Judaism is self-evidently wise, kind, and life affirming. Judaism by this Biblical yardstick must advance the cause of love and justice.

Let that be our yardstick too. When we go out into the world to defend our version of Judaism, our understanding of spirituality, do not be ashamed by those people who may wrap their tefillin more tightly than you do. Be proud to be part of a community that understands that human dignity, decency, equality, love of science, love of justice has no borders, and that we will publicly stand for a Torah of hesed, love, and of mishpat, justice, as did our ancestors. Like the rabbis of old we may tweak here and there, we may modify here and there as they did, in order to preserve the tradition as vibrant and wise and compassionate. But if we remain true to those two values, then we truly stand on the shoulders of the rabbis of the Talmud, and we sit ourselves on the throne of Moses. Hesed u-Mishpat -- Love and Justice.

I bless us all to be resilient in the love we give to each other, to be tireless in the pursuit of a world of justice, and to insist on using the Torah as God's gift to achieve that vision.