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Shiur #06: “Rav Chesed”

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The seventh of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is called “rav chesed.”


            Let us begin by noting the word “rav” which is appended to the word “chesed” (“kindness”) in this phrase.  We could explain, on the level of peshat (the straightforward reading of the verse), that rav here should be understood to mean “master,” such that “rav chesed” would mean “Master of kindness.”  Alternatively, we could interpret rav as a verb meaning “do in abundance,” in which case “rav chesed” means that God performs chesed in greater abundance than the other attributes (see Ramban’s commentary).  Chazal, however, offered a different interpretation for the word rav: “mateh kelapei chesed” (“He tilts [the scales] toward kindness”).  Our goal here is to understand this special “tilting” toward kindness, what exactly this means and upon what it is based.


            This interpretation of rav chesed appears in the Gemara in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (16b), amidst the Gemara’s discussion of divine judgment.  Rashi explains the Gemara as referring to the great Day of Judgment that will occur at the end of days, at the time of the resurrection.  In this context, the Gemara cites the following berayta:


Beit Shammai say: There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment – one of the completely righteous, one of the completely wicked, and one of those in the middle.  The completely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for eternal life; the completely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for Gehinom, as it says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust shall awaken – some for eternal life and some for disgrace, for eternal abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).  Those in the middle descend to Gehinom, cry out, and then ascend…and regarding these people Chana said, “The Lord puts to death and revives; casts down to the underworld and raises up” (Shemuel I 2:6).  Beit Hillel say: “ve-rav chesed” – He tilts [the scales] toward kindness.”


Beit Shammai maintain that the beinoniyim (“those in the middle”) descend to Gehinom and then rise, whereas Beit Hillel contend that God “tilts [the scales] toward kindness” for this group.


            It is clear from the Gemara’s presentation that Beit Hillel’s interpretation of “rav chesed” was said in response to Beit Shammai’s view concerning the beinoniyim.  Beit Shammai maintain that the beinoniyim descend to Gehinom, and Beit Hillel claim that they avoid Gehinom through the attribute of rav chesed.  Clearly, then, rav chesed is the attribute of the beinoniyim, of those whose fate cannot be determined based on the weighing of their merits against their demerits.  As Rashi there explains, “Tilts toward kindness: Since they are equally balanced [between sins and merits], He tilts the decision toward merit, and they do not descend to Gehinom.”


            The Gemara’s formulation is based upon the image of a scale with two sides, one consisting of a person’s merits, and the other containing his demerits.  The case of the beinoni is one where the two sides are perfectly balanced, without one weighing down the other.  In such a situation, according to Beit Hillel, the Almighty forcefully tilts the scales down to one side.  The word “mateh” (“tilts”) in the context of judgment is jarring, as it brings to mind the explicit prohibition in the Torah, “Lo tateh mishpat” – “Do not distort a judgment” (Devarim 16:19).  And when we conjure the image of tilting scales, we think of a different prohibition, namely, dishonesty in the marketplace through faulty weights and measures (“You shall have just scales and just stone weights” – Vayikra 19:36).  But, the attribute of rav chesed means just that – tilting to one side and thereby disrupting the balance.  From the perspective of just weights and measures, we deal with an attribute of deception.  On the one hand, God “weighs” all people on earth, and the wicked are sentenced to Gehinom according to the result of their “weighing,” yet when it comes to the beinoniyim, God overlooks the scale’s precise measurement and decides, against the scale, in favor of kindness.  At first glance, this attribute seems to entail an element of falsehood, hiding the truth and reaching decisions through devious techniques.  We must therefore ask, what is the underlying basis that allows for this “tilting” of judgment?


            Let us begin with the explanation offered by Rav Hutner z”l for the concept of “tilting.”  Rav Hutner directs our attention toward the background of this tilting – the balance between good and evil in the beinoni.  According to the Gemara’s definition, the beinoni is somebody whose demerits and merits are precisely balanced.  We obviously do not know the accounting of our mitzvot and sins, nor can we identify the precise weight of any given mitzva or transgression.  We cannot make such an accounting.  But the fact that the Gemara addresses the situation of a beinoni demonstrates that such an accounting indeed exists and is known to God.  Sins and merits are subject to arithmetic, such that there can be a situation of an exact balance between one’s sins and mitzvot.  More broadly, Rav Hutner asserts, this shows that good and evil are equally balanced in this world.  Good and evil are two equally possible choices.  This underlies the fundamental concept of free will (bechira chofshit), the basis on which the Almighty created the world.  For true bechira chofshit to exist, these two possibilities must necessarily be available to the chooser in equal measure.  The ethical justification for the mathematical weighing on the Day of Judgment, as reflected in Beit Shammai’s comments, is based upon the fact that the positive value of good equals the negative value of bad, such that a perfect balance between them can occur.  In order for the ethical value of good and bad to be equal, good and evil must themselves be equal and precisely parallel to one another in the world of the human being’s freedom to choose.  A person stands before his choice with complete freedom, and from this freedom emerges the ethical weight of the good, or, Heaven forbid, the bad.


            However, we have a tradition – which the Rambam codifies as Halakha (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:5) – that in this struggle between good and bad, good is guaranteed ultimate victory:


All the prophets commanded repentance, and Israel will be redeemed only through repentance.  And the Torah has already guaranteed that Israel will ultimately perform repentance at the end of their exile, immediately whereupon they will be redeemed, as it says, “It shall be when all these things come upon you…you shall return unto the Lord your God… And the Lord your God shall restore…’ (Devarim 30:1-3).


Rav Hutner explains that this promise, the guarantee of ultimate repentance, constitutes a breach in the balance between good and evil which is implanted within the concept of free will.  Free will is not absolute.  From the outset, the world’s Creator guaranteed a tipping of the scales between good and evil.  Good, in the end, will weigh down evil.  This guaranteed eventuality is a kind of exception to the precept of bechira chofshit.  People certainly have free will, but the two sides from which they choose are not completely balanced, for in the end, good has an advantage over evil.  We live in a balanced world, but underneath the veil of day-to-day existence, deeper inside existence, lurks the ultimate triumph of good.  Only in the future will we see this advantage of good over evil, but already in the present we know that this must necessarily occur.


            Rav Hutner explains that this is the attribute of rav chesed.  In judgment, in the law governing creation, evil is precisely equal to good, but in the world of chesed, a certain measurement of good has a greater value than the same measurement of evil.  They are equal – but not entirely equal.  The possibility thus exists of taking a balanced scale, with the two sides perfectly equal, and tilting it in favor of kindness – because goodness is worth more.  This is Rav Hutner’s explanation for the attribute of rav chesed.


            What remains for us to understand is how two equal entities can be not entirely equal.  How can there be an exception to free will, if the entire value of a mitzva stems from the fact that the individual chose to do it with his free will?


            The answer emerges from the verse in which the Almighty presented the human being with free will: “Behold, I have placed before you today life and goodness, and death and evil” (Devarim 30:15).  On the one hand, the human being chooses between good and bad, between two equal values.  But at the same time, the truth must be stated – this is also a choice between life and death, between existence and nonexistence, between something of worth and sheer nothingness.  The concept of free will requires that the Almighty presents us with two possibilities as though they exist in equal measure.  However, from the divine metaphysical perspective, no such choice exists, because goodness is God – existence, while evil is the absence of existence, nothingness, the nonexistent.  In our world, in the world in which we act, good and evil are equal, but in the world of the Almighty, goodness is God Himself.  Goodness is God, and if so, evil is the absence of God.  This tension led several philosophers to a dualistic conception.  In order to ensure complete, meaningful free choice between good and evil, they concluded that even evil is an expression of divine existence – there is a good god and an evil god – and you must choose between them.  The idolatry known to the Amora’im was a dualistic idolatry, which believed in a struggle between divine good forces and divine evil forces.  We, however, affirm that “the Lord our God – the Lord is one.”  If God is one, then ultimately good is divine and evil is nothing.  Evil is found only in a place that is not filled with the divine light, and we have not filled it through the selection of good.  Hence, where goodness is absent, it appears to us that there is evil.


            The selection of goodness is a true, free-willed selection, and also a selection of value.  The choice between chocolate cake and cheesecake is a free-willed decision, but not one that involves values.  The two possibilities are perfectly balanced.  But when it comes to the choice between good and evil, there is a right answer.  A person chooses – with his free will – goodness, because it is right and proper.  Through his own free will, the individual recognizes the ultimate truth – that goodness is God, and evil is bad and valueless.  This is the basis of the attribute of rav chesed.  When a person chooses evil, he is guilty in equal measure to the merit he earned through the goodness he chose earlier.  In the world of the human being, they are equivalent, and therefore the gates of eternal life are closed to him.  However, in the world of the Almighty, in the world of the Master of kindness, good is always worth more than evil.  God therefore tilts the scales in favor of kindness – and the individual thereby earns his share in the eternal world.


            According to the Gemara, this attribute is reserved for the beinoniyim, people whose merits and demerits are precisely equal.  Somebody who was found to be a rasha, a wicked person, and passed through the previous attributes whose purpose it is to allow him to survive, but he has nevertheless reached the final phase of judgment, is subject to the perspective of bechira chofshit – meaning, he bears accountability for his actions.  The beinoni, however, according to the allegory of the scale, neither descends nor ascends.  As far as judgment is concerned, there is no problem at all: he is sentenced neither to Gehinom nor to Gan Eden.  God’s kindness searches for a way to bring him to eternal life, since, after all, he has not been sentenced to Gehinom.  Beit Shammai suggest – and their view also reflects the attribute of kindness – that beinoniyim descend to Gehinom in order to then rise from there to eternal life.  Beit Hillel, however, suggest that the Almighty tilts the scales toward kindness – he disrupts the basic equilibrium of justice upon which the realm of bechira chofshit rests.  Of course, the balance that underlies free choice cannot be eliminated altogether, for then the very basis of the world’s creation would collapse.  For this reason, the attribute of rav chesed cannot save the wicked (though we still have more attributes yet to come).  With regard to the beinoniyim, however, justice’s verdict remains undecided, and there is thus room for kindness to save them.


            After establishing that God “tilts toward kindness,” the Gemara proceeds to ask a peculiar question: “Heikhi avid” – “How does He do this?”  Meaning, how, technically, does this “tilting” work?  The Gemara offers two answers:


Rabbi Eliezer says: He depresses ("kovesh") as it says, “He shall again pity us, He shall subdue our iniquities” (Mikha 7:19).  Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Chanina says: He lifts ("moseh"), as it says, “who bears iniquity and forgoes on transgressions” (Mikha 7:18).


Rashi explains these two answers according to the imagery of the two sides of the scales: “He depresses the merit side of the scale, and they weigh down the iniquities; He lifts – He raises the iniquity side of the scale.” 


            At first glance, this discussion seems almost humorous.  If we were dealing with an unscrupulous merchant in the marketplace, then we could point to the two ways in which he can manipulate the scales to defraud customers.  He can either place his hand on the side of the scale with the merchandise, so that it weighs more, or he can place his hand underneath the counterweight and raise it, such that the merchandise will appear to weigh more.  Correspondingly, the Gemara cites two views as to how the Almighty performs this exercise when weighing our sins and merits.  He could either push down on the side of the merits so that they will appear to weigh more, or He could lift the side of the demerits so that it would seem lighter.  What is the meaning of this allegory in reference to God?  Sure, a crooked merchant can devise many different schemes to cheat his customers, but how does this reflect upon God’s “tilting” of the scales weighing good and evil?


            Let us see what we can learn by taking a more serious look at this analogy.  Rabbi Eliezer maintains that God adds the weight of His hand to the side of merits.  In the end, then, one side of a person’s scale will contain his demerits, while the other side will contain his merits as well as the “weight” of the Almighty.  On the side of my merits, along with my good deeds, there is something extra – the presence of the Shekhina itself.  Essentially, this is what we explained earlier in trying to understanding the “tilting” of the scales, only now concept is presented in more graphic and daring terms.  Evil is nonexistence, while goodness is not only actions that warrant reward, but divine goodness itself.  Goodness is God Himself.  Good deeds constitute the presence of the Shekhina in the world of human beings.  More precisely, my good deeds, the actions I performed that created goodness in the world and through which I have drawn closer to God, are themselves the presence of the Shekhina; they themselves constitute kedusha.  Therefore, although from the viewpoint of the actions themselves, good and evil weigh the same, nevertheless, with respect to the end result, as regards the presence of the Shekhina, good always weighs more than evil.  And so the scales of the beinoni will always be tilted in favor of kindness and goodness.


            The goodness I perform does not simply resemble divine goodness.  A person’s closeness to God, the increase of goodness in the world with which he is credited – this itself constitutes the kedusha in the world, as we explained in the first essay in this series.  One might have thought there is no God in our world of imperfection.  In truth, however, our world does have the process of reaching toward perfection, human beings who strive for perfection with their own free will – and this is itself a reality of perfection.  Therefore, every act of goodness performed by a human being has the additional value of the Shekhina, of sanctity.  If my iniquities weigh the same as my mitzvot, still, God is present alongside the mitzvot, and this is the kindness that weighs the scales down in favor of chesed.


            As I explained in the first shiur, this concept underlies the entire recitation of the Thirteen Attributes.  We position ourselves to be a basis and “chariot” for the Shekhina.  On the one hand, this is a great privilege, an act of goodness.  But moreover, beyond the merit I earn for my attempt, I earn merit as well for my actual success in serving as this chariot, and so the weight of the entire chariot, including the One riding it – His and my weight together – exceeds the weight of the mitzva act itself.  This is the cycle that emerges: the one who recites the attribute of rav chesed, who carries this Name, at the same time produces the basis for that attribute’s effect.


            Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Chanina presents us with a different image – the Almighty lifting the side of the scales holding the iniquities.  The explanation is clear, though I cannot help but hesitate a bit.  When a person commits a transgression, he bears full responsibility for his action; the scale of iniquity weighs down heavily on the person and sinks him to the depths of the underworld.  If we say that the Almighty helps the individual bear the weight of his iniquity, it can only be because He shares the burden of responsibility.  Why?  Quite simply, because if not for His help, one cannot succeed in committing any transgression.  In our world, we have a prohibition of “lo ta’amod al dam rei’akha” (Vayikra 19:16), which forbids standing idly by somebody in a situation of danger.  If I could have prevented an act of sin, but instead I stood by and did nothing, then I bear a certain degree of responsibility for the results.  Not only does the Almighty not prevent my wrongdoing, but He actually takes an active role – He gives me the strength to commit the act, He sustains the natural laws that allow such actions to occur.  One might ask, doesn’t God also take part in the mitzvot I perform?  This is precisely the difference between merit and guilt.  If a person goes to do a good deed, and in the process receives help from somebody, the assistance he receives does not diminish from his personal merit.  This is not the case, however, with regard to evil.  If I received assistance in perpetrating evil, and without that help I could not have succeeded in committing the forbidden act, this diminishes somewhat from my accountability.  Accountability for evil is divided among all those responsible, while credit for goodness simply increases so that each receives full credit.  In the case of evil, the second person could have prevented me from committing the act, and so he is considered a participant in the offense.  Goodness, however, is something positive, and therefore all participants reap the rewards; evil is something negative, and therefore the more partners there are, the less personal responsibility each partner bears.  It thus emerges that the side of the scale containing my sins – which I chose to commit through my own free will – weighs less, because God’s hand is underneath it and carries it.  The Almighty takes for Himself part of the responsibility.  The side of merits therefore weighs the scales down, even if intrinsically the merits weigh the same as the sins.


            Of course, this notion, too, stands in opposition to the principle of bechira chofshit.  The concept of free will is based upon the human being’s full responsibility for what he does.  Once we assert God’s ability to carry out His will and prevent any action which He opposes, then we are no longer free to do anything.  A person with too strong a religious consciousness will make the following calculation: if God wants my enemy to perish, then he will perish in any event; and if he does not want my enemy to perish, then I certainly will be unable to kill him.  This perspective undermines the human being’s free will to murder or to refrain from murdering.  In order to create a world of free will, the Almighty steps back from active involvement – at least overtly – and gives us fixed laws of nature, for the use of which we bear full responsibility.  Still, behind the veil of divine withdrawal and concealment, everything is in His power.  Therefore, after the fact, once I have employed my free will with the perception that there is no God, at the time of judgment – the attribute of rav chesed enters, an attribute which is based upon the divine truth that everything is under His control.


            At the time when one acts, he must not see God’s power, for if he does, he has no free will.  But at the time of judgment, the compassionate, gracious God sees His power and assumes a share of the responsibility for the person’s sins.  It thus turns out that the beinoni, whose scale is perfectly balanced between guilt and merit, emerges with a favorable judgment, but God bears some of the weight of his sins.  God created the world with bechira chofshit, for the purpose of goodness, and in the end He agrees to accept some responsibility for the evil that results from His decision to create the world in this way.  And when we recite the Thirteen Attributes, particularly the attribute of rav chesed, this is precisely what we are doing.  We take the closed world which works on the basis of free will, and put it into the broader perspective from which everything – the entire world and all natural law – lies in God’s hands.  We bring the Almighty into this world of ours, and, as Rav Hutner z”l explained, this infringes upon free will, upon the autonomy of creation.  At the time when I call out in the Name of rav chesed, I call to God to bear responsibility for the world’s substandard condition, to share in the accountability for my wrongful acts.  At that moment, the individual foregoes to some extent on his free will, and returns to that true, primordial point, where everything exists solely by His word.  And then – the scales tilt in favor of kindness.


            The next attribute, according to the listing we follow in this series, is the attribute of emet – “truth.”  The question immediately arises as to why this is included among the attributes of mercy, when it appears to belong to the attributes of justice.  Specifically with regard to this attribute I did not find any passage in Chazal that addresses this question, and we will therefore have to work more on our own in solving this mystery.



            Already now I will give a hint to the direction I will take.  It seems that the attribute is not actually emet, but rather rav emet, half of the full expression, “rav chesed ve-emet” (see Ibn Ezra).  The word rav that appears before chesed, which the Gemara explained to mean “tilts toward kindness,” relates also to emet.  We must therefore understand the meaning of rav emet – and this will help us understand why it is considered an attribute of kindness.