The High Holiday season is suffused with an awareness of judgment — of din. In that climactic prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, the angels call aloud “hineh Yom haDin” — “it is Judgment Day!” For many Jews, what makes these truly Days of Awe is the awe and fear of God’s judgment, imagining that on these days God is examining our deeds, prompting us to anxiously do the same.
What response does tradition prescribe on these days? Alongside the process of teshuvah, of return and self-improvement, we plead for rachamim, for Divine compassion. We call upon God to overlook iniquity despite our not being worthy of such treatment.
Isn’t this plea at odds with din — with strict judgment and justice? Judges must be impartial, ruling on the evidence in front of them without recourse to mercy or to love for those being judged. How can we ask for rachamim on the ultimate days of din?
Given these contradictory requests at the heart of the High Holidays, we must ask: What is it, in fact, that we want from God — and for ourselves? Do we want to be reassured that God is fair and unbiased, even if it means the outcome for us might be less rosy? Or, do we want to be reassured that God will shine mercy and compassion on us, looking away from our wrongdoings, even if it means that the world is then bereft of a Divine paradigm of justice and fairness?
The interplay between din and rachamim appears throughout rabbinic literature, describing how God employs both attributes in the initial creation of the world and in how God judges us each year during the Days of Awe. But the interplay between these two poles is so central that the Talmud underscores that this push-and-pull is a feature of God’s daily routine: During the second [three-hour unit of each day], God sits in judgment of the whole world, and when God sees that the world deserves destruction, God transfers Godself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy.” (Avodah Zarah 3b)
At first glance, this is remarkable. God, over and over again, makes the move from the harsh initial state of judgment to the salvific state of mercy. But at second glance, this almost seems to belittle God. Why do this charade over and over again? Why not abandon judgment and just go straight to mercy?
According to the Torat Chayyim, a 17th-century commentator, retaining judgment represents God’s refusal to give up on the possibility of each of us being tzaddikim, good people striving to grow and serve and observe to the best of our ability. God’s insistence on starting with din every day reflects God’s belief in the infinite possibility of the human being.
This approach suggests that din and rachamim are separate and powerful, each holding up a different important value, and God moves from one to the other.
A second approach to the relationship between these seeming opposites comes from a talmudic passage about God’s daily prayers: “Rav Zutra bar Tobi said in the name of Rav: ‘… May My mercy suppress My anger … that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and that with them I stop short of the limit of strict judgment.’” (Berakhot 7a)
Whereas the first wishes in this prayer reference mercy, the last wish suggests that compassion must function inside the universe of judgment, not outside it. It is not compassion blotting out din and it is not ignorance of the law and responsibility. Rather, it is finding a practice that works in the real world, one that incorporates compassion and human reality within the law. In this approach, we ask God to bring the attributes together, to treat us mercifully within the confines of the law, however that may play out.
May this season help us to reflect on our tradition’s understanding of God’s balance of din and rachamim, propelling us to think about our own employment of those tools in our lives.
Steven Exler is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit, an Open/ Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx. He received smikhah from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. He sits on the rabbinic advisory boards of Eshel, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (chairperson), and Yeshivat Maharat.