Les Miserables: Reconciling God’s attribute of Justice with Mercy

The Tanakh (OT) teaches that the ultimate Lover is He who combines in a perfect blend, justice and mercy (also called loving kindness or grace – unmerited favour).

In Hebrew the word transliterated as ‘elohim’ (often just as God), means ‘God of Justice’ and the word for God that can’t really be transliterated  at all, YHVH means ‘God of Mercy’.

Thus in Exodus we see the Creator of the Universe being described by as the embodiment of both justice and mercy:

“And Elohim (God of Justice) spoke unto Moshe saying: I am YHVH (God of Mercy)” – Ex 6:2

Quoting Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum: The verse (Exodus 6:2) seems to be contradictory. How can the God of Justice declare Himself to be the God of Mercy? Justice seems to be strict and unyielding. Mercy seems to be lenient and bending.

(This very challenge is addressed in the play, now just out as a movie, Les Miserables – more on this later).

The ancient pagans were confronted by that very problem. How could there be Justice and Mercy co-existing in the world. They concluded that there must be more than one god: gods who constantly struggled for supremacy. The Egyptians in the time of Pharaoh envisioned the great fight between Set, the god of justice, and Horus, the god of mercy.

G-d tells Moshe that there is only one G-d. He has both attributes and each one is constantly present. It is only our lack of perception that has difficulty uniting Justice with Mercy. This concept sums up the very basic philosophy of Judaism. “Hear O Israel! YHVH (the G-d of Mercy), our Elokim (the G-d of Justice), G-d is One” (Devarim 6:4)…

In our own families we play a G-d-like role. We too must temper our Justice with Mercy. Justice and punishment can never be inflicted in a state of anger. Such a punishment will convey the wrong message. Justice can only be served when the punishment is carried out in a state of love…

I once saw a small child run out into the street. A car was rushing by. The driver slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt inches in front of the child. The mother, who had seen the whole incident from the porch, came running out to her child. She picked up her precious youngster. She hugged him dearly; then she slapped his hands hard. She had tears in her eyes. She screamed at him, “Don’t you ever run out in the street again.” She shook him hard. “Never, ever run out in the street. I love you, poor baby.”

That was Justice and Mercy.” – from http://www.torah.org/learning/outsidethebox/5764/vaera.html

Judaism understands that love is this perfect blend of justice and mercy. When those of us who are parents reflect on how we best deal with our children, perhaps this can teach us this fuller meaning of love. As a parent we learn to give, we learn to put our children’s needs before our own, to recognize that often, their needs must come first, but as they grow we also learn how vital it is to exercise fair judgment with them, to demonstrate and practice justice as well as grace/mercy if we are to raise well-balanced and capable children.

In his famous discourse on loving kindness, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler states that: ‘Giving leads to love’.

Gila Manolson writes:

“True giving, though, as Erich Fromm points out, is other-oriented, and requires four elements.

The first is care, demonstrating active concern for the recipient’s life and growth.

The second is responsibility, responding to his or her expressed and unexpressed needs (particularly, in an adult relationship, emotional needs).

The third is respect, “the ability to see a person as he [or she] is, to be aware of his [or her] unique individuality,” and, consequently, wanting that person to “grow and unfold as he [or she] is.”

These three components all depend upon the fourth, knowledge. You can care for, respond to, and respect another only as deeply as you know him or her.” – see http://www.aish.com/d/w/48952241.html

Consider how well these 4 attributes are actualized by our Father, the Creator of the Universe. He cared enough to create this world for us and to create us. He takes responsibility for it on a daily and moment by moment basis and yet is also able to delegate some of this responsibility to us, even giving us greater and greater responsibility as we grow and become more capable of handling it.

Also, no-one could possibly respect each and every one of us as our heavenly Father does!  He knows oh so intimately how unique and gifted each of us are because He made us that way and gave us the environment to allow our potential to grow and unfold.

Finally His knowledge of us, is superior to our own. So superior in fact that He calls us to know Him, rather than seek to know ourselves[1], because it is through knowing Him that we may grow to fully be all the reflection and image of Him that he planted within us, and in doing so, come to know who He meant us to be.

In fact, Jeremiah summed up these attributes of the Almighty very well when he wrote:

Here is what Adonai says: “The wise man should not boast of his wisdom,
the powerful should not boast of his power,
the wealthy should not boast of his wealth; instead, let the boaster boast about this:
that he understands and knows me —
that I am Adonai, practicing grace,
justice and righteousness in the land;
for in these things I take pleasure,” says Adonai.’ – Jeremiah 9:22-23

If we strive to be like Adonai, then surely we will heed the call of Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23.

Which leads me back to Les Miserables. The brilliant teacher, Rabbi Benjamin Blech has written a great article on Victor Hugo’s examination of the challenge of justice and mercy in his play.

I heartily recommend a read of his article ‘Les Miserables and the Bible’ – see

http://www.aish.com/ci/a/Les-Miserables-and-the-Bible.html

Clearly, if we desire to gain the full mercy of our Father we need to learn to repent[2]. I also recommend this article that I have quoted a little from:

“On Rosh Hashana (Yom Teruah), which is a day of judgment mitigated by mercy, a person must establish his right to be present in the next world by answering the objections of the prosecution. One must pass through the dark corridors of justice before he can bask in the sunshine of mercy. On Yom Kippur one is armed with the benefit of the decisions of mercy before he is subjected to the harsh scrutiny of justice.” – from http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/theme/48955531.html

I also love these words from a brother on Facebook recently:

Repentance is the key, a return to God and His Torah (instructions) through Yeshua the Messiah. Repentance is not just a mantra, is not empty words recited by a preacher and repeated by the penitent. Repentance is not just a passive emotion and a resolve to do better. It is not a new year resolution. Repentance is an attitude change, a change of perspective and direction, an active work, a setting right of wrongs done to God and our fellow man, a hunger for justice to be done, a choice to live in obedience to Torah(instructions) given to us by God. Repentance bears fruit, works and deeds of kindness, it produces a gentleness and a zeal for God, a separated life. Repentance changes one personally and can change a society corporately. A person or people bearing the fruits of repentance will enjoy the blessings and protection of our heavenly Father.” – Leon Hargreaves (FB Post – 26/12/2012)

Shalom, Paul


[1] “The aim of Hebrew religion was Da’ath Elohim (the Knowledge of God); the aim of Greek thought was Gnothi seauton (Know thyself).  Between these two there is a great gulf fixed.  We do not see that either admits of any compromise.  They are fundamentally different in a priori assumption, in method of approach, and in final conclusion…
The Hebrew system starts with God.  The only true wisdom is Knowledge of God.  ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’  The corollary is that man can never know himself, what he is and what is his relation the world, unless first he learn of God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will.  
The Greek system, on the contrary, starts from the knowledge of man, and seeks to rise to an understanding of the ways and Nature of God through the knowledge of what is called ‘man’s higher nature’.  According to the Bible, man had no higher nature except he be born of the Spirit.
We find this approach of the Greeks no where in the Bible. The whole Bible, the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach… “  
- Prof. Norman H. Snaith  “Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament”

[2]The ability to recognize our sin, to take responsibility for it and to repent is at the core of what is meant by the idea of a Messiah.… the courage to admit guilt, to take responsibility, to change. This is the lesson that the Messiah will one day teach the world. Man controls his destiny. No matter what mistakes he has made, man can fix them.” –  Rabbi Ari Kahnhttp://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48914512.html

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The Rarity of Repentance

One of the rarest of people are those who learn to fully and totally repent, especially where this has involved a reversal of character.

If you are a strong, independent and very capable individual it is perhaps even harder to recognize your error, to recognize when you have wronged someone (and hence, in a sense, the Almighty, because all are made in His image). Sometimes we even need some serious help – see for example the story of King David in 2 Samuel 12.

If we love God, we are to love our neighbour (see Leb 19:18 and Gal 5:14). In fact the 10 Commandments, the 10 Words, sum this up – the first 5 declare what we should do if we love God and the second 5 the very basics of how we should act if we love our neighbour. (See ‘Living the Way: The Path of the Circumcised Heart’ and ‘Siblings of the King: Living in the Will of the Father’ for more on this – both at http://www.circumcisedheart.info)

Implicit in the whole Bible is the idea that one man’s sin however small, affects the entire word, however imperceptibly.

On the bigger scale we have the famous Jewish saying, based on the story of Cain and Abel and the ‘blood’ being plural in Hebrew (‘the bloods of your brother cry out from the ground’), that states that:

Save a man; save a world. Destroy a man; destroy a world”

This also lead to the Jewish appreciation that a wise man must give his wisdom to the community in the same way a man blessed with wealth/riches should also do so. Put simply, it is a sin not to serve – all have talents; all are called to use those talents to help repair or better the world (Tikkun HaOlam).

Thus, the community also must take responsibility to address wrong and protest against evil. However, if one is mistaken and protests unjustly and publicly against someone, then this is seen as the use of the ‘evil language’ (Lashon HaRa), and is a serious mistake. To destroy anyones reputation wilfully and unjustly is a great sin.

Thus we can see some tension here. The challenge of speaking out against wrong, yet doing so with great care, especially where it is possible we might be mistaken in our understanding.

This leads us to this weeks Torah Portion and to the amazing way in which Tamar was able to address Judah’s sin in a manner that did not wilfully and unjustly harm his reputation, but rather lead him to great repentance and even it appears, to change his very character in some way.

Rabbi Sacks addresses this brilliantly – I have posted his whole article below along with the link to it at aish.com.

Vayigash(Genesis 44:18-47:27) – Choice and Change – by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The sequence from Bereishit 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved – even spoiled – by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishit, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness.

Yet history did not turn out that way. To the contrary, it is another brother who, in the fullness of time, leaves his mark on the Jewish people. Indeed, we bear his name. The covenantal family has been known by several names. One isIvri, “Hebrew” (possibly related to the ancient apiru), meaning “outsider, stranger, nomad, one who wanders from place to place.” That is how Abraham and his children were known to others. The second is Yisrael, derived from Jacob’s new name after he “wrestled with G-d and with man and prevailed.” After the division of the kingdom and the conquest of the North by the Assyrians, however, they became known as Yehudim or Jews, for it was the tribe of Judah who dominated the kingdom of the South, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. So it was not Joseph but Judah who conferred his identity on the people, Judah who became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David, Judah from whom the messiah will be born. Why Judah, not Joseph? The answer undoubtedly lies in the beginning of Vayigash, as the two brothers confront one another, and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release.

The clue lies many chapters back, at the beginning of the Joseph story. It is there we find that it was Judah who proposed selling Joseph into slavery:

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all – he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (37:26-27)

This is a speech of monstrous callousness. There is no word about the evil of murder, merely pragmatic calculation (“What will we gain”). At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he is proposing selling him as a slave. Judah has none of the tragic nobility of Reuben who, alone of the brothers, sees that what they are doing is wrong, and makes an attempt to save him (it fails). At this point, Judah is the last person from whom we expect great things.

However, Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later it not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave. As he says to Joseph:

“Now, my lord, let me remain in place of the boy as your lordship’s slave, and let him go with his brothers. How can I return to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the misery which my father would suffer.” (44:33-34)

It is a precise reversal of character. Callousness has been replaced with concern. Indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage on his behalf. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin. At this point Joseph reveals his identity. We know why. Judah has passed the test that Joseph has carefully constructed for him. Joseph wants to know if Judah has changed. He has.

This is a highly significant moment in the history of the human spirit. Judah is the first penitent – the first baal teshuvah – in the Torah. Where did it come from, this change in his character? For that, we have to backtrack to chapter 38 – the story of Tamar. Tamar, we recall, had married Judah’s two elder sons, both of whom had died, leaving her a childless widow. Judah, fearing that his third son would share their fate, withheld him from her – thus leaving her unable to remarry and have children. Once she understands her situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that she must have had a forbidden relationship and orders her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar – who, while disguised, had taken Judah’s seal, cord and staff as a pledge – send them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.”

Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but he also realises that she has behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him (it is from this act of Tamar’s that we derive the rule that “one should rather throw oneself into a fiery furnace than shame someone else in public”). Tamar is the heroine of the story, but it has one significant consequence. Judah admits he was wrong. “She was more righteous than I,” he says. This is the first time in the Torah someone acknowledges their own guilt. It is also the turning point in Judah’s life. Here is born that ability to recognise one’s own wrongdoing, to feel remorse, and to change – the complex phenomenon known as teshuvah – that later leads to the great scene in Vayigash, where Judah is capable of turning his earlier behaviour on its head and doing the opposite of what he had once done before. Judah is ish teshuvah, penitential man.

We now understand the significance of his name. The verb lehodot means two things. It means “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name: “this time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means, “to admit, acknowledge.” The biblical term vidui, “confession,” – then and now part of the process of teshuvah, and according to Maimonides its key element – comes from the same root. Judah means “he who acknowledged his sin.”

We now also understand one of the fundamental axioms of teshuvah: “Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34b). His prooftext is the verse from Isaiah (57: 19), “Peace, peace to him that was far and to him that is near.” The verse puts one who “was far” ahead of one who “is near.” As the Talmud makes clear, however, Rabbi Abbahu’s reading is by no means uncontroversial. Rabbi Jochanan interprets “far” as “far from sin” rather than “far from G-d.” The real proof is Judah. Judah is a penitent, the first in the Torah. Joseph is consistently known to tradition as ha-tzaddik, “the righteous.” Joseph became mishneh le-melekh, “second to the king.” Judah, however, became the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.

– from http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/183700211.html

From Joseph, through Judah: Foretelling Messiah

The ability to recognize our sin, to take responsibility for it and to repent is at the core of what is meant by the idea of a Messiah.” 

 “… the courage to admit guilt, to take responsibility, to change. This is the lesson that the Messiah will one day teach the world. Man controls his destiny. No matter what mistakes he has made, man can fix them.” –  Rabbi Ari Kahn [1]

The Messiah is a prophet, a prophet who has/will declare perfectly the will of the Almighty and teach us of His Ways, as per Psalm 119.

Therefore, the Messiah will show us

  • what true repentance is;
  • what it means to be truly and fully obedient to the Almighty;
  • to truly ‘forgive those who trespass against us’’;
  • to speak into the world in an attempt to heal it (Tikkun HaOlam); and
  • to demonstrate to the point of accepting death that ‘no greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his friends’.

For more on the Messiah from a Hebraic Perspective listen to our Podcasts – Part 1 and Part 2

This weeks Torah Portion (Genesis 37-40) contains so much wisdom and is so heavy with prophetic vision and typology.

There is a well known Jewish saying: ““the actions of the forefathers serve as a portent (a sign or warning) for their descendants.” That is, we can learn so much about both how to live today and about what is coming tomorrow, from studying the narratives of the Hebrew/Jewish patriarchs.

This Torah portion begins with: And Jacob settled in the land in which his father dwelled.” – Gen 37:1

Today, Jacob’s children have again settled in the land in which his father dwelled.

The next verse reads:These are the generations of Jacob; Joseph was seventeen years old ...” – Gen 37:2

Note how immediately Joseph is brought into the picture. Joseph’s whole life is such a strong ‘type’ of Messiah. That is, there is so much of his life that acts as a sign to the future coming of Messiah [2].

Notice also in the very next verse that Jacob is now referred to by his name Israel.

“Israel loved Joseph more than any of his sons …– Gen 37:3

Perhaps this indicates that the love that Jacob/Israel has for his son Joseph is a national love, a love that all Israel should share, a yearning not just for the leadership and wisdom of Joseph to return to lead the people, through Messiah, but a love for their brother, for their neighbour and for their God, so powerfully declared through the example of Joseph [3].

But much goes wrong first!

Much time and heartache and loss occurs between the birth and exile of Joseph, and the redemption of Israel’s family through this same Joseph.

The favourite son is scorned by his brothers. He is handed over to the pagans and endures much suffering. But ultimately he rises up to stand at the right hand of the highest authority in the land.

Ultimately, his position of great authority, acting as the principal agent of the King (the Pharaoh of Egypt) will bring redemption and salvation to his brothers who rejected him, and to his entire family (as well as to many Gentiles – Egyptians).

Note that there is an intriguing break in the narrative though.

The last verse of Genesis 37 informs us that Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt.

 “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.” – Gen 37:36

Then in the first verse of Genesis 39 (NOT 38), the story of Joseph in Egypt and his rise to great authority and ultimate redemption is begun.

“Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.” – Gen 39:1[4]

So what is ‘in the gap’? The story of Judah and his illicit union with Tamar, which produces the line of King David and the King Messiah.

Why is this story placed here as an insert, as a pause in the narrative of Joseph, the great ‘type of Messiah’?

Perhaps as a ‘portent’, as a sign for the future, so that we may consider what it may be telling us.

The son of Israel, chosen by HaShem as a Messiah (an ‘anointed one’) to bring the redemption and shalom is rejected by his brothers and ‘disappears’ from view for a time. While he is ‘away’ in a ‘far land’, Jacob grieves for his loss and much tension and conflict arises between the brothers, especially against Judah. Ultimately they all leave the Land of Israel to ‘find’ their Messiah, their savior Joseph dressed and disguised as an Egyptian (Gentile), and through his efforts they find salvation from the famine and are ultimately returned to the Land.

At the end of the Genesis 38 and the story of Judah we read of his repentance.

It is then that the story returns to focus of Joseph and we read of the redemption of the people of Israel; the restoration of Jacob/Israel with his son Joseph, the restoration of Joseph’s brothers with Joseph and finally the  return of all Israel to the Land of Israel.

We also see during this time that Joseph is involved in the Gentile world, that the Gentile world is greatly blessed by his involvement, his leadership and example.

Could this narrative be a further ‘sign’ that after the last great exile and dispersion from the Land of Israel (a direct result of the prophetic fiat of God through Moses on the plains of Moab – see Deut 29-30), the Jewish people will return and their Messiah will be revealed to them. Jacob/Israel will learn that he was not dead, that he has been given great authority and that when the time is right he will bring full restoration and real shalom to Israel and all the nations of the earth!

May Messiah come speedily!

For more on the return to israel in these present/last days see my article: ‘Israel: Return in Belief or Unbelief’.

Paul Herring
December 2012

[3] And of course through the example of Yeshua (Jesus), who a number of famous Rabbi’s and Professors have called the greatest ethical teacher ever. This was certainly the view of Prof. Joseph Klausner, of Hebrew University (retired in 1949) who was an historian of the Second Temple period.

[4] For a great article of this fascinating story I strongly recommend the article ‘The Light of Messiah’ by Rabbi Ari Kahn at Aish.com – see http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48914512.html