Then the Eternal said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”
The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Eternal. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:20-25)
Justice is at the heart of Judaism from the biblical narrative onwards, and it is understood to be a core attribution of God that we human beings should strive to emulate.
But Justice alone will not create a sustainable world. And here in Vayera we see Abraham challenging God and God’s intended actions against the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Is this how to dispense Justice? Something more is needed….
When we read the two creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God’s name differs between the stories. To begin with God is called Elohim – a word that is also used to describe human judges in bible, and it is understood to correspond to the attribute of Justice. In the second story the name of God is YHVH Elohim – Justice is present but so is something else, something in the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God – something understood to correspond to the attribute of Mercy.
Why the additional name? Because anything created only to follow the rules of strict justice is unlikely to survive for long – Justice must always be tempered with Mercy.
The midrash explains thus: “In creating the world God combined the two attributes of justice and mercy: “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be God’s name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will be plentiful; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore I will create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and thus may it endure.'”. [Gen. R. 12:15]
“Initially, God intended to create it with the attribute of Justice. But then He saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so He gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” (Pesikta Rabbati 40)
As the prophet Micah put it (6:8) “God has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice (mishpat), And to love goodness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God”
The bible tells us “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16) but while it commands absolute justice we can see that at the same time compassion and mercy are threaded into the narrative almost all the time. Just as the first creation story has the world made from absolute justice, so there has to be a second creation where that justice is mitigated with mercy. If the world is made with only absolute justice, goes the thought, then no one would survive God’s decrees. And if it were to be made only with absolute mercy, then chaos would ensue if no one was ever going to deal with the consequences of their choices. Hence the intertwining of the two attributes, Justice and Mercy, within God.
In the Talmud there is a discussion about whether God prays and to whom. The decision is that God does indeed pray and that God prays to Godself. And what is the prayer that God recites? “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may suppress my other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy, and on their behalf restrain my attribute of strict Justice.” (Berachot 7a)
In the story in Vayera, God appears to be in full “Justice” mode. It is Abraham who introduces the notion of mercy. Abraham’s question to God is a masterpiece of critical examination: “Shall the Shofet/Judge of all the earth not Mishpat/Justice”? It is a reminder that sometimes we may have to remind God of the prayer God prays (see above).
In the weekday Amidah there is a paragraph that does just that.
הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה לְבַדְּ֒ךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְצַדְּ֒קֵֽנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט:
Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at the first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us, and reign over us You, Adonai, alone with kindness (hesed) and mercy (rachamim); and make us righteous with justice,
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מֶֽלֶךְ אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט:
Blessed are You, Adonai the Sovereign who loves righteousness and justice.
While the blessing uses a verse in Isaiah (1:26) I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore. After that you (Jerusalem)shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City” to reference the “golden period” of the Judges – before the monarchy was established – a human monarchy which God had not originally planned for and which may be seen as in some way challenging the kingship of God. The final section explicitly reminds God that God should use kindness and compassion in order to bring about Justice, that Justice only emerges when there is also compassion and mercy.
Justice is our imperative, it drives Jewish thinking in so many ways. This prayer reminds us that without Justice there will be “sorrow and sighing” – the world will not function and people will be ridden over roughshod with no way of protecting themselves. But Justice cannot exist alone, in a place where there is only justice there can be no mercy. In a place where there is only mercy there can be no justice. And so while the imperative to pursue Justice at all times shapes us, we must be constantly aware to be merciful in its applications.
In the words of the psalmist
חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ Faithfulness and truth meet;
justice and well-being kiss. אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ Truth springs up from the earth;
justice looks down from heaven.
Just as God learns this, then so do we. Just as God acts with both attributes, so must we. It is a difficult road to walk, and just as Abraham was able to challenge God, so too we must challenge ourselves and each other. Justice yes, but mercy always too.