Remembrance and the Journey from Judgment to Mercy
Rabbi Ohad Teharlev is the director of Israeli Programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum
There are two Memorial Days in the Jewish-Israeli calendar: Rosh Hashanah, and Remembrance Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror. These are both significant days that generate a change in the world.
The expression “And God remembered” appears three times in the book of Genesis, each time in a similar fashion.
In the first instance, the Torah states , “God remembered Noah and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters receded; The fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained” (Genesis 8:1-2).
In the second instance, we read, “And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Genesis 19:29).
And the third instance, “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22).
We have a tradition from Rabbi Zadok Hacohen of Lublin, that the main essence of a word is determined according to the place in which it appears for the first time in the Tanakh.
Accordingly, Rashi comments on Genesis 8:1:
“AND GOD [ELOKIM] REMEMBERED — This Divine Name really signifies the God of Judgment (midat hadin) but it is transformed into Mercy (midat harachamim) through the prayers of the righteous. Whereas the evil practiced by wicked people transforms Mercy into Judgment, as it is said “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great” (Genesis 6:5) and, “And the Lord [HASHEM] said, “I will blot out” etc. (Genesis 5:7) — yet in these passages the Name signifies Mercy”.
Rashi clarifies that the Torah uses the name Elokim, signifying Judgment, to show how Judgment becomes Mercy through the prayers of the righteous.
And indeed, if we look at the verses preceding the term, “and God [ELOKIM] remembered”, we see that they describe the flood.
The flood is a mix of confusion and chaos. There is great chaos in the world, symbolized by the great spread of water (Judgment appears as a movement of negative grace in a spreading motion).
And then – God remembers Noah, meaning: he stops the flood and the water (although stopping is usually a motion of reduction which is typical of Judgment, in this situation in which God stops the flood and the spread of the water, the stopping stems from Grace and Mercy).
The verse that refers to Abraham also appears in a context of destructive chaos, in which fire and brimstone are showered down on earth and Sodom is upended – this is Judgment, and this is the context in which God remembers Abraham’s request and his prayer. God halts and contains the chaos, turning Judgment into Mercy.
Similarly, the verse in which God remembers Rachel appears in the context of her barrenness. Barrenness is a motion of Judgment – stopping the possibility of birth. Rachel is in a status of Judgment before God remembers her. Judgment is also hinted at when Rachel names Bilha’s sons Dan and Naftali, and then Dina is born. When God remembers Rachel, he opens her womb through Mercy.
These three examples show that memory generates an inversion of Judgment to Mercy.
How is God’s memory a mechanism by which Judgment is turned into Mercy?
The action of remembering is a journey to the deepest, most intimate moments within us in which we encounter our dear ones who are no longer with us, through special moments engraved on our hearts.
It is a type of remembrance that usually generates tears, and touches upon a person’s most tender spot. It is a place of compassion and reconciliation with the world and with ourselves.
Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror is also a day in which Judgment is turned into Mercy.
Everyone killed in sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) is killed in a reality of chaos and Judgment, either in war or terror attacks. A reality of death is a reality of Judgment, especially death which is so unnatural, being the result of a hateful scheme by people who choose to injure and murder out of identification with the forces of evil in the world.
The memory of the fallen has the potential to turn the great tragedies that generate intense feelings of agony, despair, and weakness within us into a tender, noble, and human spiritual motion and move us from a condition of Judgment and decrees to a reality of compassion and mercy.
When there is compassion and mercy, there is also great solidarity. Therefore Remembrance Day is a day entirely of national and human solidarity. The essence of this day is similar to Rosh Hashanah, the universal Remembrance Day, in which we ask and beg the Almighty to remember us favorably – “Who is like You merciful Father, Who remembers His creatures for life, in His mercy”.
Those great righteous men who invert Judgment to Mercy are the ones buried in military cemeteries.
“Ashrei Ha-am”, “Fortunate is the nation” that is capable of standing before the void left by the fallen and adding light, tenderness, love of humanity, and compassion to the world.
The proximity of Remembrance Day to Independence Day expresses the transformation of Judgment to Great Mercy.
The coming into being of the State of Israel is an expression of God’s great mercy for the Jewish people. And the role of the State of Israel in the world is to increase human mercy and compassion and make the world more humane, more sensitive, and more compassionate.
The more tender and compassionate we are, the more we will be filled with great mercy. And as a result of our own mercy, God will have mercy on us.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782