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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God is your shadow

We all understand what a shadow is, or at least we think we do. The sun creates a shadow of us that follows us where-ever we go and mirrors exactly an outline of our form.

In Psalm 121:5, we read: YHVH is your keeper, YHVH is your shade on your right hand”

The Hebrew word (Tzilcha) normally translated as ‘shade’ though, can be translated as ‘shadow’, so we instead get: YHVH is your protection, YHVH is your shadow to your right.

The famous Jewish Rabbi, Baal Shem Tov translated it this way and argued that ‘your shadow’ means that HaShem becomes our shadow in this world.

Just as a shadow mirrors the actions of each person, HaShem’s relationship with us becomes a mirror of how we act in His world. Our ways below in this world, arouse and elicit HaShem’s response from heaven above.

Just as a shadow moves in synch with the person and never leaves him, the way we choose to conduct ourselves in the world is the way God conducts Himself with us. If we engage in acts of loving kindness, then God responds in kind, by showing us His infinite loving kindness.

Before we investigate and meditate on this incredible insight, what evidence is there that this insight has real validity?

Let is start with Adam. Consider that after Adam sins, he hears God’s voice and he and his wife hide behind a tree. Obviously, God could see Adam and knew where he was, but nevertheless, God asks ‘where are you?’. God responds here at the level that Adam is at. He moves in synch with him; He acknowledges Adam’s state of apprehension, and rather that overwhelm it with the truth of His all-knowing and all-seeing omni-presence, He acts as if He can’t see where Adam is.

This is not God being temporarily senile!

This understanding is consistent with the concept of ‘The King Who Hides’ (– see https://globaltruthinternational.com/2012/09/23/moses-and-the-king-who-hides/). It is also consistent with the famous declaration of Jeremiah 29:11-14
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart,
I will be found by you, declares the LORD, …”

Note here that the Almighty’s plans await our response; that He waits for us to come to Him, to seek Him. It is only when we seek Him with our everything, that we truly and fully find Him.

Therefore, I see this foundational passage as supporting this incredible insight.

Further, we read in Song of Solomon, which is a great story of the love that the Almighty wishes to share with us: I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine …”. This also hints of this reciprocity, this moving in synch.

Is this not what any great relationship is all about, where each one in the relationship is responsive to the other and reciprocates as much as possible in kind?

As a father of 4 grown children, I have always felt that once they grew up and left home, the degree of relationship I have with them is very much dependent on them, on how close and how involved with me they now want to be.

I have done my job in bringing them up and hopefully giving them the teaching (torah), skills and faith to step out with confidence and courage into the world to make their own path. And yet, I desire the relationship to continue, but no longer with me as an authority figure, but as someone there, in the background, also therefore in a sense as a shadow, willing to be there when needed either for physical or emotional support, but mostly hoping that they will turn to me for spiritual support, for help finding their way toward the Almighty, the ultimate Father. So I am ready and willing to relate in synch with them, to be their ‘shadow’.

Thus, as a father, I see myself in a similar light to the way our King and Father relates to us.

So I see much truth in this great Jewish insight. Consider then that our relationship with God is so much dependent of us, on how much we act with loving kindness in our world. Leviticus 19:18 tells us that we are to love our neighbour, if we love God. The more we show love to our fellow man, the more we are in synch with God and the greater our relationship with Him will be, because, as our love for others grows, His love for us, His blessing of us grows in synch!

The Almighty blesses all mankind; He makes the sun shine and the rain fall on all; but He also, as a loving Father, wants more.

I believe He wants a deeper and closer relationship, but it will only be as deep and as close as we allow it to be. The more we are obedient to Him and His Ways, the closer He will be to us, and the greater His blessings will become!

The depth, the breadth, the height, the width of your relationship with Abba, with your Father is dependent on you!