middot righteousness torah two sides of righteousness

two sides of righteousness

Written by  rabbi paul saal

art-scale2Often when we speak of the righteousness of God we conjure up images of perfection. After all, God directed Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God” (Vayikra 19:2). Unfortunately our efforts often fall short of God’s highest standards and can leave us feeling inadequate.

In contrast to this directive the great rabbi from Tarsus states, “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16). So if Israel’s holiness is inherent, how do we reconcile this idea with the need to act out our holiness as commanded in Vayikra?


The answer can be found in the very nature of the Holy One, who is the quintessential personification of Midat HaDin (the trait of Judgment) and Midat HaRachamim (the trait of Mercy). According to Rashi these character traits are portrayed in the varied names for the Righteous One. In B’reishit chapter one, He is referred to by the name Elohim. Rashi states that this more generic name for the Creator denotes judgment. Rashi goes on to say that the covenant name yod-heh-vav-heh, which we do not pronounce but verbalize as Hashem (the Name) or Adonai (LORD), denotes the Righteous One’s mercy. This is the more revered name, and therefore mercy should be aspired to over judgment.  Furthermore, he states that in the second chapter of B’reishit the Creator is called Adonai Elohim using both names because He exemplifies the perfect blending of judgment and mercy.

the world needs judgment and mercy

Can parents possibly raise their children by being strict judges of their behavior at all times? On the other hand, how would kids turn out if their parents never enforced discipline and always let them have their way? The rabbis of old used a midrash to make this point. They spoke of a king who had a glass made of fine delicate crystal. He deduced that if he poured boiling water into the glass it would shatter. But he also concluded that ice water would likewise compromise the integrity of the fine crystal and would break it. So the king mixed together both the boiling water and the ice water and poured it into the glass, and the crystal did not crack.

In the same way the rabbis said, the Holy One concluded,

“If I create the world on the basis of mercy only, then people will not refrain from sinning. They will lie, cheat, steal and kill each other, and the world will surely be destroyed. But if I am always going to judge the world on the basis of strict judgment, there will be no people left to populate the world since every misdeed would have to be severely punished. For that reason I will create the world combining Midat HaDin and Midat HaRachamim. I will give humanity rules to live by and the freedom to seek forgiveness when they do wrong.”

tilt in favor of mercy

It is more important to show mercy than judgment. Why? Because judgment comes so much more easily for us. We not only judge others harshly, but also often do so without even being aware that we unconsciously judge ourselves. The rest of the world quite simply is a mirror for our own deep sense of inadequacy. To this end Yeshua advised that we should not judge others unless we want those same standards of judgment turned back on us (Matt 7:1-5).

One midrash even portrays Hashem praying to Himself that His Midat HaRachamim might overcome His Midat HaDin so that He would not judge His children by so strict a standard. According to Talmud, when the Egyptians were drowned in the Reed Sea the angels in heaven rejoiced and sang hymns to Hashem. But God silenced the angels and said, “are not the Egyptians also my creatures? How can you sing hymns to Me?” If the Holy One deems mercy to be such a high priority, how can we not do the same? Midat HaRachamim is to Midat HaDin as the bright face of the moon is to its dark side. Seek the light!

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