universal to personal

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-tunnelOne of the high points of the traditional morning prayers comes right at the beginning. As the worshiper concludes putting on the tefillin, he wraps the leather strap around the middle finger three times, reciting the words of Hosea 2:19–20.


I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me
In righteousness and justice,
In lovingkindness and compassion;
I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness,
And you shall know the LORD.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the two word pairs, righteousness-justice (tzedek and mishpat) and lovingkindness-compassion (hessed and rachamim):

“The former are about justice, the latter about loving attention, for which the simplest English term is care. Justice is and must be impersonal. . . . Hessed, by contrast, is intrinsically personal. We cannot care for the sick, bring comfort to the distressed, or welcome a visitor impersonally.”

This contrast doesn’t imply that one trait is better than the other, for life requires both, and Hashem says in Hosea that he will bind us into his covenant with both. Still, the contrast serves as a reminder that we can’t be satisfied just with one or the other, with adhering to the impersonal rules of justice without exception and tossing mercy overboard, or with showing mercy without regard to justice.

There’s also a contrast between the two aspects of mercy, hessed and rachamim. Rabbi Sacks aptly defines hessed as kindness or love, “not love as emotion or passion, but love expressed as deed.” Hessed involves emotion, but it shows up as deeds of lovingkindness. Rachamim must also be expressed in action, but the Hebrew word puts more emphasis on emotion. It’s based on the same root as rechem, which means “womb,” and invokes the deep love for her child that a mother feels—or a father, as in Psalm 103:13, “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Compassion, rachamim, implies taking in, and feeling in the deepest part of the soul, the pain or loss or anxiety of another human soul.

We might say that hessed means acting out of a heart of mercy; rachamim means acting out of a heart of mercy. Obviously, both work together, but rachamim, even more than hessed, has the power to overcome the isolation and hopelessness in which the other might be stuck.

In contrasting justice and mercy, Rabbi Sacks noted that justice is universal and impersonal, and mercy must be personal and specific. The power of compassion is in its ability to draw us out of the universal into the personal, out of seeing the other person as object or abstraction into an encounter with the depth of their humanity, out of isolation into connection. After Messiah Yeshua told the foundational mussar tale of the good Samaritan and the not-so-good priest and Levite, he asked one of his hearers, “‘So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed compassion on him.’ Then Yeshua said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:36–37). Good advice for our impersonal, isolated, and lonely age.

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