As Tisha B’Av approached this year, I felt a looming sense of dread. This day—when Jews remember, reflect on, and re-create for our selves death, destruction, and the seeming absence of God—was seeming much more tangible than it had a year ago. Last year was my first Tisha B’Av, a fact that probably hindered my full connection; I wasn’t sure then what to expect from the evening service or from my first 25-hour fast—and to a certain extent, my concern over the things of the day kept my participation at a surface level. But this year, breathing more comfortably in my newly Jewish skin, there was nothing to keep me from fully facing the darkness.
On this day, our task is to dismantle the constructs of our lives and look at the broken pieces, the rubble—and to do it alone, not greeting one another or even the day, until late afternoon. This place of isolation and destruction is a fitting starting point for our walk toward the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year and Day of Atonement. There is much work to do; in this intentional sifting of fragments, we begin the process of deciding what to keep and what to leave behind, discerning what mistakes we’ve made over the last year, and taking steps toward mending our relationships with others and with God.
It is in this context that the question of mercy, forgiveness and justice reaches me. This year, as I engage more fully in preparing, ultimately, to stand before God on Yom Kippur, how do I approach this task with mercy and justice, and move toward forgiveness?
“Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. One that says ‘I am a speck of dust.’ And the other, ‘The world was created for me.’”- Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha
In my daily life, I often find myself drawing from one or the other of Rabbi Bunim’s pockets. When things are going well, I might agree that the world was created for me. On the other hand, there are moments when the saying from the other pocket resonates more, and I feel very much like a worthless speck of dust. There are inherent dangers in both extremes—too much pride and self-satisfaction, as though the world were really created entirely for me, could lead to selfish behavior and arrogance; too little self-worth and confidence, as though I were merely a speck of dust, could lead to despair. The key is charting a course somewhere in-between: recognizing the truth in both seemingly contradictory statements, maintaining that tension, and holding the balance as I move forward.
That’s no small task. Let’s dig a little more.
The central statement of the Jewish tradition is the Shema: “Listen, (people of) Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” In Hebrew, the two names of God mentioned in this proclamation have significant connotations: the word translated as “Lord” is the ineffable Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay name of God, meaning mercy; the word translated as “God” is Elohim, meaning judgment. My rabbi teaches that justice is a combination of those two elements—mercy and judgment—and notes that there is no name of God that means justice, that justice is something we create together with God.
How do we combine mercy and judgment, though? These also seem to be contradictory stances, difficult to hold together. The only way to combine mercy and judgment, I think, is with a big helping of love. That’s what the human-God partnership in creating justice is all about—we start with our love for God and God’s love for us, and then move it out into the world. Justice is that love poured forth—God’s and our love for Creation, God’s and our love for other people, God’s and our love for ourselves. Cornel West has a nice summary of this idea: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
This walk from the destruction of Tisha B’Av toward the honesty of Yom Kippur is a call to examine my life with a combination of mercy and judgment, and that is possible only with love. Approaching this work neither as queen of the created world nor as a speck of dust, but somehow as both—opposites held in dynamic tension by a strong thread of love—allows me to gently but seriously account for the places where I’ve missed the mark, recognize them, seek forgiveness from others and from God, and then resolve to do better. With mercy and judgment, and in partnership with God, this walk helps me bring loving justice into my life and the world. I’d better get to work.