The mercy of God, not just stern justice, determines our fate


Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

II Samuel 22:1-22:51

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The adversaries face each other in a courtroom drama set in Venice. Shylock’s bond has fallen due and the debtor cannot pay; he therefore demands a pound of flesh instead. He asserts the justice of his claim, and relies on the law to protect his rights. When Portia tells Shylock that he “must be merciful,” he wants to know what compels mercy in this instance. Portia responds that mercy, by nature, is not “strained” — meaning “constrained, forced.” Nothing compels mercy; it is offered spontaneously, as rain falls from the sky, as a free gift of grace.

Because all people are sinful, Portia argues, none of us would be saved, were we to rely on God’s justice alone. Without divine mercy, all would merit damnation, and those who wish mercy for themselves must demonstrate it to others. Shylock argues, instead, that justice will determine his fate; he will be rewarded or punished in heaven based on his deeds alone.

“The Merchant of Venice” dramatized for Elizabethan audiences a conflict between the Old Testament ethic of stern, implacable justice and the New Testament ethic of love and compassion. Many have noted the irony of a play that glorifies mercy while demonstrating so little for the Jews. Shylock, acted in Elizabethan times in hideous caricature, with hooked nose and red wig, is ridiculed and despised, cursed and spat on by the play’s heroes, and in the end he is fined, stripped of half his fortune and forced to convert to Christianity. It is the supposedly non-mercenary Christians who profit financially from Shylock’s destruction, in a pattern repeated throughout the history of Jews in medieval Christian Europe.

In a play rich with biblical allusions, Portia’s speech recalls a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu. It is the opening simile in the Song of Moses:

“May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.”

(Deut. 32:2)

Here water imagery is used differently: Moses prays that his teaching will nourish and refresh his people, hoping that after years of wandering in the desert their hearts will not be arid and unresponsive to his reproof.

In this passage, too, a courtroom drama is evoked. Moses charges the Israelites with unfaithfulness and ingratitude to God. Despite the loving care of their Father in heaven, who rescued them from enslavement, nurtured them in the wilderness and brought them to safety, the people of Israel spurned God for “demons, no-gods.” (Deut. 32:17)

By rights, says Moses, God should be enraged at this betrayal – and this portion does indeed portray an angry, grieving God who cannot fathom why His “dull and witless people” (Deut. 32:6) should be so indifferent, and vows to punish them as they deserve. Yet, in the end, God cannot bring Himself to carry out a sentence of utter destruction. Words directed against Israel switch abruptly to words directed against their enemies, as if God finds it impossible to sustain such fury against His people.

Moses says of the Holy One: “The Rock — His deeds are perfect; yea, all God’s ways are just.” (Deut. 32:4) Yet repeatedly in the Torah, God relents, forgives, allows His anger to subside.

Shakespeare’s Shylock, calling for strict justice and bloodthirsty revenge, presents a grossly simplified view of Jewish theology, a distortion that unfortunately remains common even today. The God of the Torah, in contrast, is a complex figure — impassioned, disappointed in love, by turns tender, gracious, demanding and distraught. The Hebrew Bible does not bifurcate justice and love, seeing one as harshly punitive and the other as divine. Rather, it envisions a God who, like the best of parents, has high expectations of His children but understands and forgives them for their failings. “God is just in all His ways and compassionate in all His deeds.” (Psalms 145:17).

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.