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Shiur #16: Justice

  • Rav Ezra Bick


Restore our judges as at first,

and our counselors as at the beginning,

and remove from us sorrow and sighing;

and rule over us, You, HaShem, alone,

in kindness and mercy, and acquit us in judgment.

Blessed are You, HaShem, a King who loves righteousness and justice.


A. What is this berakha about?


            This berakha poses a special problem for us. This problem can be expressed very simply: What exactly is the theme of the berakha? On the one hand, the chatima seems to be unequivocal - the blessing is about justice (and hence the title of this week's shiur). But this, once we think about it, is itself not clear - just what are we asking for? Are we asking for justice, in other words that we should be judged? This would seem to be a bit risky. Off hand, I would be content to wait for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, when we will all be judged. And then, there is the incongruous phrase, "and remove from us sorrow and sighing." What does this have to do with justice? While we all undoubtedly would wish to be freed from sorrow and sighing, why here, in this berakha? To this we may add a number of questions based on an analysis of the text.


1. The opening two phrases refer, nostalgically, to earlier times - at the beginning, as at first. This theme, returning to a pristine state of the distant past, is also found in connection with the rebuilding of Temple ("bnei veitkha ke-vatchila," in the Musaf prayer on festivals), where it makes, I believe, more sense, since what we want is exactly the RE-construction of the destroyed temple. Interestingly enough, in the Shemona Esrei, the phrase "ke-vatchila" is not used in connection with the Temple, but only here, referring to the RE-institution of justice. Why is this important? In general, why should we be hearkening back to earlier times rather than looking forward to the future? Is the ideal of Jewish life really found in the past? Are our hopes for redemption merely a desire to recover and reconstitute the earliest stages of Jewish national existence?

2. Who are the "counselors?" What do "yoatzim" have to do with justice?

3. Again, "remove from us sorrow and sighing." What is this about?

4. "And rule over us, You, HaShem, alone." What does this have to with the theme of the berakha? More generally, just what are we asking for?

5. "In kindness and mercy." These attributes are surely the ones we prefer. But nonetheless, if the berakha is about justice, why are we stressing mercy and kindness?

6. "And acquit us in judgment." What does this mean? I must add immediately that I have tried to translate this phrase as well as I could, but it must be noted that the verb "acquit" ("tzadkeinu") is the same root as the noun loved by God in the chatima - "tzadaka" (translated as "righteousness"). The last two lines of the berakha are practically a play on words - "make us right in justice, God who is a King who loves right and justice."

7. In the chatima, God is referred to as "King." This is the only chatima where God is called "king." Why?

8. God who "loves" righteousness and justice. As we previously noted in the berakha of repentance, we expect the chatima to have a verb that indicates that God has the power to fulfill the request. Here, assuming that the berakha is a request for justice, it should have read, "God, who judges," or some similar active formulation. What is the meaning of a chatima that refers to God's love for justice, rather than his power to dispense it?


            I think that I can sum up most of these questions by repeating what I asked in the first paragraph. Basically, there is one basic puzzle - what is this berakha, with its shifting themes and unclear focus, actually about? In other words, what do we want?


B. "They who err from Your path shall be judged"


            There are two basic answers to be found in the Rishonim to our question. One method of discovering what the theme of a berakha in the Shemona Esrei is to examine "tefila ketzara." The Gemara (Ber. 29a) states that if one is in a position where he cannot recite the Shemona Esrei, he should recite a single prayer which summarizes succinctly the themes of all the middle berakhot of the long Shemona Esrei. This is called "tefila ketzara" (the short tefila). The phrase that corresponds to our berakha in tefila ketzara is "They who err from Your path shall be judged."  The commentators disagree concerning who will judge these errants.  R. Yona explains that God shall judge the sinners.  Accordingly, this berakha is a prayer for the judgment of the wicked by God. This corresponds most closely with the THIRD line of our berakha - "and rule over us, You, HaShem, alone."  This opinion is adopted by the Tur as well.


            Rashi however explains that they will be judged by Torah law. Accordingly, this is a prayer for the restoration of the sanhedrin and the Jewish legal system. This corresponds to the clear meaning of the FIRST line of the berakha - "Restore our judges as at first."


C. The source-text


            As usual, we search in Tanakh to find the source-text for the berakha, and we find it in Yeshayahu (Is. 1, 26-27):


I shall restore your judges as at the first,

and your counselors as at the beginning;

Afterwards you shall be called, The city of righteousness, a faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return unto her with righteousness.


            There is nothing here about God ruling us by Himself, nor is there any reference to eliminating sorrow and sighing. Taken on its own, this seems to support the understanding of Rashi, though that merely raises the question why the Sages added those extra two lines. But, if we read backwards in this chapter, we find, after a description of the sins of Jerusalem, God swearing an oath:


Ah, I will comfort Myself from My adversaries,

and revenge Myself from My enemies.

And I shall turn My hand upon you, and purge purely your dross,

and take away all your tin. (24-26)


            This surely sounds like a vision of Divine retribution on the wicked. In this context, the restoration of judges is AFTER the elimination of the sinners (pure gold, without any dross or tin) - in other words, like the reading of R. Yona.


            So, we are wiser, in a sense, but no closer to a solution.


D. The good old days


            Let us start from question no. 1. Why are we asking for judges and advisors as of old? I think the answer can be found if we examine the first instance of the phrase which the chatima of our berakha indicates is the true subject of the blessing - righteousness and justice, tzedaka u-mishpat.


            When God decides to destroy Sedom in yesterday's parasha, he first goes to speak to Avraham:


God said: Am I hiding from Avraham that which I am going to do?

For Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.

For I know (Rashi: cherish; Ramban: have chosen) him, because he shall instruct his children and his household after him, and they shall follow the way of God, doing RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUSTICE, so that God shall bring upon Avraham all that He has spoken about him. (Gen. 18, 17-19).


            The way of God is the way of tzedaka and mishpat, righteousness and justice, and it is the foundation of these principles in the household (the precursor of the "great and mighty nation mentioned in the second verse) by Avraham that explains the choice of Avraham to be the forefather of the Jewish people in the first place.  The verb "to know," as both Rashi and the Ramban explain (in somewhat different ways), refers to the personal relationship between God and Avraham.  Is it any wonder, then, that the first chapter in Yeshayahu explains that the coming destruction of Yerushalayim can only be averted if the people, "Learn to do well, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, fight for the widow" (1,17)? The entire relationship of God to the Jews is based on the legacy of Avraham - to follow the way of God, doing righteousness and justice. If God then finds that:


How has the faithful city become a harlot; it was full of justice, righteousness lodged in it - now murderers.

Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water,

Your princes are amiss, and companions of thieves;

all of them love bribes and pursue payments,

they will not judge the orphan nor the cause of the widow come before them. (1, 21-23),


is it not to be expected that a terrible cleansing must take place? The city without justice is a city which God does not "know" in the way that He knew Avraham; the entire basis of the covenant has been uprooted. This is therefore followed by those verses we cited above, the very basis for our berakha -


Ah, I will comfort Myself from My adversaries,

and revenge Myself from My enemies.

And I shall turn My hand upon you, and purge purely your dross,

and take away all your tin.

And I shall restore your judges as at the first,

and your counselors as at the beginning;

Afterwards you shall be called, The city of righteousness, a faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed with JUSTICE, and those that return unto her with RIGHTEOUSNESS. (24-27)


            I wish to suggest that the time "at first" and the days "as at the beginning" are not a particular time period during the first Temple era. The "beginning" here is in the sense of foundation, and it refers to the virtue of Avraham which is at the core of our relationship with God. Justice and righteousness were there at the very beginning, literally the beginning, of the relationship of God and the Jewish people. They are the marks of the proper relationship of God and the Jews and their absence is the equivalent of a dissolution of that relationship. The absence of a just society means a dysfunctional relationship between God and His people - in other words, if there is no society (city, in the words of Yeshayahu) of Justice, the kingship of God is impaired.


            So what this berakha is really about is the reconstitution of a society which can form the basis of our true relationship with God, one founded on justice and righteousness - in other words, a society which exemplifies true social values. These values are necessary components of a personal relationship with God, which is not truly based on INDIVIDUAL virtue (which Avraham surely possessed), but on social virtue. This is borne out by the famous triad of verses recited with the binding of tefillin on one's finger:


And I shall betroth you forever;


And I shall betroth you in faithfulness, and you shall KNOW God.


            The creation of a just society leads to a personal relationship with God, like that which Avraham had "in the beginning," a relationship here described as betrothal with God. This betrothal is marked by righteousness and justice, and also by kindness and mercy - and indeed, the last line of the berakha adds kindness and mercy to righteousness and justice. The berakha is about the just society, but the request for a just society in the eyes of the Sages who wrote this blessing is an expression of a yearning to return to the intense personal betrothal which characterized the relationship of God and the father of the nation, who walked before Him and was perfect.


            This yearning for the personal relationship with God is felt by us as "sorrow and sighing." This berakha arises from the INTERNAL, existential feeling of alienation from God, which the Sages knew to be caused by the lack of a just society. Sorrow and sighing do not refer to an external trouble, such as poverty (the blessing of prosperity), but are expressions of mourning, of loss. Sorrow ("yagon") is experienced by the mourner, who has lost a close one. We are grieved for the loss of the relationship with God, who would be our betrothed. If we can restore the just society, then indeed sorrow and sighing would be removed, for we would be once again betrothed to God in kindness, mercy, righteousness and justice, and we would KNOW God.


            The berakha then requests that God aid us in restoring the just society as was envisioned in the beginning, in Avraham's teaching, with judges and advisors, princes, and teachers, and then we will be freed of the existential alienation. Is our desire for such a society based on national pride, political ambition? No, it is based on restoring our relationship with God, so we immediately ask for that which is the true object of this berakha - "and rule over us, You, HaShem, alone, in kindness and mercy, and acquit us in judgment." The just society is but the basis for redemption and the restoration of the kingdom of God, for which we yearn. Our acts of justice are but the other side of the coin, of God's rule over this society. Judaism has never believed in primitive anarchism, direct rule of individuals by God. The Torah commands and describes a human order, with judges, princes, government, which is not contradictory to the rule of God (though it can, as the prophet Shmuel feared when the Jews requested a king, rival the rule of God), but the true reflection and basis for it.


            Are there any questions I have not answered? Ah yes, why is God called "king" specifically in this berakha? Well, I think I have answered that after all. It is not merely another name for God, but the very substance of this particular berakha. We want God to rule over our society, for which we must ensure that it is a just society


E. The chatima


            In the blessing of repentance, I noted that the chatima speaks not of God's activity, as is generally the case, but of His desire, "who desires repentance." I explained that this is due, in part, to the fact that we cannot really ask God to perform repentance for us - it is something that we must do ourselves (with God's help; see shiur no. 10). A similar situation exists here. The just society is something we must create ourselves, fulfilling that which we were taught by Avraham our father. God is not going to lower upright judges from the sky, and if He did, that would perhaps do away with iniquity, but it would not be the basis for the kingship of God and the betrothal "in faithfulness and you shall know God." Society is what we make it. We are asking for His help in this regard, for we realize that purely on our own we are not succeeding. The verses in Yeshayahu where God declares that He will "purge purely your dross" and "restore your judges as at the first" are preceded by His call that we "wash and make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your actions from before My eyes, cease to do evil" (1, 16). Therefore, we cannot conclude with "the King who does justice," for we are not asking that God DO justice, but that he help us do justice. We conclude "the King who loves righteousness and justice." We are appealing to the king who loves the righteousness and justice which we will recreate, and in so doing restore our relationship with Him.


            This explains the change that this chatima takes between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, when we conclude "Blessed are You, the King of Justice," rather than "a King who loves righteousness and justice." This has always puzzled me, since in both versions God is called "king." The corresponding change in the third berakha of the Shemona Esrei, from "the holy God" to "the holy King," is due to Rosh HaShana being the time celebrating God's kingship, as is clear from the prayers of Rosh HaShana. But what is accomplished by changing the King's love for justice to His being the King of Justice?


            The answer is that on Rosh HaShana God indeed is king because He performs justice Himself, judging the entire world and every individual in it. God is now not the King who loves justice, drawing us to create a society of justice, but the king of justice Himself. On Rosh HaShana we are all individuals being judged in a world order under God. The berakha is changed accordingly.


F. Redemption



            The previous berakha called for the gathering of the Jews together, a precondition for a society. This berakha calls for forming a society, not merely in the sense that we will be together, but in the model taught by Avraham, the model called by the Torah "the way of God." This is the basis of redemption, of God entering into our lives on a personal basis and being our king. The concluding verse of the section from Yeshayahu reads, "Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return unto her with righteousness." We are now embarked on the second half of the Shemona Esrei, all of which deals, in one sense or another, with redemption. It has not quite begun yet, but we have laid the basis - a just society. We have still many more steps to go, many more requests to make. Which is why, I hope, you will look forward to the next shiur on "birkat ha-minim."