Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?

 

On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.

 

It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.

 

Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:

 

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)

 

We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.

 

Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 

 

Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.

 

Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.

 

Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.

 

Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?

 

The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.

 

As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.

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