In lifes courtrooms, we should judge with mercy and justness


Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Isaiah 51:12-52:12

“Where was the Judge whom he had never seen?” This is Kafka’s bitter question at the end of “The Trial,” used to describe the predicament of Josef K. just before his death. K is the helpless victim in Kafka’s novel, a victim of senseless proceedings and a nameless judge.

The meaningless, cruel world described by Kafka is very different from the just society that our Torah seeks to establish in this week’s portion, Shoftim. The portion begins with Moses’ instruction to the Israelites to appoint judges (shoftim) who will govern the people throughout the Land of Israel. The judges must abide by certain conditions: “You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes … Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:19-20).

The ancient Israelites gave a great deal of attention to the equitable administration and enforcement of law. Not only is a whole portion of the Torah devoted to it, but also an entire tractate of Talmud, called Sanhedrin. This section of Talmud seeks to establish a high court and lower courts, and judges and witnesses who would serve with the utmost level of fairness and justice.

Human justice had as its role model Divine Justice. To pursue justice meant to walk in God’s ways. A midrash based on the story of creation shows how God set about to create a just world:

There is a story told of a king who had cups made of delicate glass. The king said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst. If I pour cold water into them, they will contract and break.” What did he do? The king mixed hot and cold water, and poured it into the cups, and so they remained whole.

Likewise, when God set out to create the world, the Holy One blessed be He said, “If I create the world with the attribute of Mercy (Rachamim) alone, its sins will be too many; if I create the world with the attribute of Judgment (Din) alone, how could the world be expected to last? So I will create the world with both Din and Rachamim, with Judgment and with Mercy, so that the world may long endure” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

Ideally, as the midrash teaches, to establish a just society we should apply equal amounts of the divine attributes of Din and Rachamim — judgment and mercy. Without enough Din, we fall prey to a lack of responsibility and accountability. Without enough Rachamim, we risk excessive critique and overly harsh ruling. David Hartman, the modern champion of religious pluralism and tolerance, writes, “Rachamim and Din together join human responsiveness with human initiative and responsibility.”

Our leaders today might well learn from this divine model of accountability mixed with compassion. On the one hand, people who have erred must be held responsible for their actions. On the other hand, judgment must be served with fairness and with mercy. It is the task of our leaders to continue to strive for a world that is just.

In just under a month, we Jews will all stand on trial together on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the New Year. This is the time of year, we are taught, when our lives hang in the balance. The awesome and fearsome melody of the Unetaneh Tokef prayers transmits the message that “this is the Day of Judgment. For even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on Earth stand arrayed before You.”

We will stand before God, before our community, and our conscience. Rosh Hashanah, though, is no trial before a cruel or anonymous judge who brings us up on arbitrary charges. Rather, Rosh Hashanah is a summation of our deeds, an acknowledgment of responsibility for our actions. We are reminded that God is a merciful Judge who understands the frail nature of human beings. At this time of year, God call us to return. May honest judgment tempered by mercy center us as we make our way back to the best that is inside each of us.