From Justice to Mercy

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev

Director of Israeli Programs, Midreshet Lindenbaum


The theme of “memory” figures prominently during the High Holy Days, particularly on Rosh Hashana, which the Torah calls Yom Hazikaron [“Day of Memory”] and Zichron Terua [“Remembrance of the Terua (shofar blast)”]. To underscore this concept, our Sages quote God as saying, “Recite your memories to Me, so that your memories may come up to Me for your benefit” [Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16a].

Additionally, we request of Hashem during the Amidah prayer of the High Holy Days: “Remember us for life, King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life!”

However, it strikes us as odd that Hashem would need us to remind Him about us. Does Hashem forget things? If not, what relevance does memory have for Hashem?

The expression “And God (Elohim) remembered” appears three times in the Book of Genesis, and are quite similar: Noah and those living beings in the Ark being saved from the Flood [Gen. 8:1]; Avraham praying for the city of Sodom [ibid., 19:29]; and Rachel, concerning her bout with infertility [ibid., 30:22].

As Rabbi Tzaddok Hacohen taught, the first mention of a word in the Torah is where we can find the essence of that word. Accordingly, we can better appreciate Rashi’s explanation [ibid. 8:1] that the Torah there specifically uses the name “Elohim” to represent the Divine attribute of justice, in order to demonstrate how it can be transformed into the Divine attribute of mercy through the prayers of the righteous.

The second example, when Hashem overturned Sodom and the cities of the plain, is similar. The Divine attribute of justice is present in the world, but Hashem remembers Avraham’s prayer and request, stops the destruction, contains the chaos and turns the Divine attribute of justice into the Divine attribute of mercy.

In the third example, Rachel was still barren, an effect of the Divine attribute of justice, until Hashem turns His attention to her. The Divine attribute of justice is also hinted at when the Torah mentions the names of the children of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid- servant: Dan, Naftali and Dina (“judgment” in Hebrew is “din”). Hashem remembers Rachel and evokes the Divine attributes of mercy and kindness.

How, then, does Hashem turn the Divine attribute of justice into the attributes of mercy and kindness?

This can be explained by a parable: A person’s life flashes before his eyes. He sees everything, but he stops the camera, so to speak, in order to focus on the positive scenes. So, too, on Rosh Hashana: when we pray on this day, we ask Hashem that as our lives play out like a movie, He focus the lens on our good deeds.

It is like focusing on seeing the half-full part of the glass, even as one is aware that the glass is also half empty. Similarly, these days of remembrance are days for focusing, and the more we focus on Hashem, our friends and ourselves with a good and positive eye, the more Hashem will focus back on us positively and remember us for good things.

This principle beautifully explains the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “The secret of the redemption is in remembering.” If we contemplate the past positively, then memory, which converts the Divine attribute of justice into mercy, becomes an internal part of our souls, bringing redemption to mankind.