Kallah XV: Engagement with Justice
By Micha Berger
The Torah opens, “Bereshit bara E-lohim … – In the beginning, G-d created.” The name of G-d used here and throughout the description of the week of creation is “E-lohim,” not the Tetragrammaton, “Y-HV-H.”
King Solomon associates that name of G-d with Divine Justice: “For the E-lohim will bring every act to justice, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (Qohelet 12:14).
While the title “E-lokim” refers to the One G-d, and the verb it takes is always in the singular, its “-im” suffix is a plural conjugation. As numerous commentaries note (including Nachmanides on our verse in Genesis), “‘E-lohim’ refers to the Controller of all forces”— the plurality of creation bows to His Will. E-lohim is how G-d looks to us when He runs the universe through predictable forces of nature and of metaphysics. For that matter, “elohim” appears in the Torah in secular usage. When describing the ritual of a servant who refuses freedom, it says, “Then his master takes him to the judges—el ha’elohim—and brings him to the door or the door-post …” (Shemot 21:6). The G-d of creation is the G-d of natural law and of moral law—
And yet, Ethan the Ezrahite writes in a Psalm: “Olam chesed yibaneh—
Last month Alan and Roann taught us beautiful and inspiring messages about the role of Compassion. Compassion brings to mind stepping forward, rushing in to help. But that’s not always the perfect kind of interpersonal engagement.
When a child first comes to this world, we rush in with Compassion, Rachamim—
Sometimes justice is the greater kindness.
The gemara (Berakhot 4b) quotes a Tosefta (translation and commentary from the Koren edition of the Talmud, by Rabbi Steinzaltz):
Michael, in one [flight]; Gabriel, in two [flights]; Elijah [the Prophet,] in four [flights]; and the Angel of Death, in eight [flights]. During a time of plague, [however, when the Angel of Death seems ubiquitous, he arrives everywhere] in one [flight].
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Kiev, 1809–1879), usually called “The Malbim” explains (ad loc, tr. mine):
For Michael, who is the angel of Lovingkindness, can fly a single flight (or perhaps: can fly in a single flap of the wings), to bestow/influence prophecy on a prophet. He does not return, because lovingkindness stays in the world.
However, Gavriel, who is the angel of Justice, flies in two flights. Because first he flies up to get the influence which is above him, which is Michael. Then he flies down to bestow/influence prophecy below.
The embodiment of justice reports to that of lovingkindness.
We might think of Compassion, Lovingkindness, that drive to run in and help, and Justice and Restraint as some kind of dialectic, opposing sets of middot for which we have to find the proper balance. But it seems it is not that way: E-lohim, the G-d of Justice, founded our world on lovingkindness.
Whether the actions seem at first glance to be those of Michael or of Gavriel, of Compassion or of Justice, we can be engaging with the other in a manner that emulates the Divine and manifests the divine element within us. An aspect of the Holiness of Engagement, which we will be exploring at this year’s Mussar Kallah, is developing ways of knowing when stepping in or stepping back is more appropriate, when to express compassion as compassion, and when it should be filtered through the world’s need for justice.
We know we are executing justice correctly in our own lives when we can look honestly at our motives and see no element of empty vengeance—where we give the other room to have their own growth experiences. Or being in the role of parent, teacher, or other authority figure and having to create or ensure that experience happens is just when we experience the Holy Engagement of Justice.
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