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The Meaning of Mercy

Rabbi Binyamin Lipson

adapted from the writings of Rav Dessler, zt”l

One of the most oft repeated themes during the Days of Awe is the concept of Divine mercy. Again and again we beseech Hashem not to hold us to the full rigor of the law and to give us more time to improve in the areas where we have fallen short. For the entire ten days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur we include in our prayers an additional expression of praise to our Creator, “Who is like You, Merciful Father, Who remembers His creations with mercy to give them life!” Now let’s stop and think for a moment. Is it really appropriate that we ask Hashem for mercy? After all, mercy seems to imply sort of “bending the rules”and overlooking the letter of the law. For instance, when you’ve just been pulled over for your third traffic violation this year, your plea for mercy might sound something like this, “Please officer, I know that I really deserve a strict penalty, but couldn’t you just let it slide just this one time and I promise I’ll be a lot more careful from now on?” Do we stand in shul on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, fasting and praying to Hashem that He just let our transgressions slide?

However, perhaps we are deserving of mercy after all. Indeed, our forefathers were Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, and our foremothers were Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, who succeeded in rising to the highest levels of Divine service. In a world in which the forces of nature were worshiped as gods, they served as the sole ambassadors of truth, and they fostered the nation that would carry the Torah’s messages to all of humanity. Certainly, our connection to the Avot  and Imahot gives us great merit in Hashem’s eyes. We often mention them in our prayers and beseech Hashem to allow their great deeds to serve as a conduit for Divine mercy.

But how can the deeds of the Avot and Imahot serve as a merit for us? Imagine yourself as a judge presiding over a case in which the defendant’s father once saved your life. Surely, it would not be just for you to be more lenient on the perpetrator just because of your connection with his family. The Torah prohibits a judge from being slanted in his reasoning for any reason. Judges must do their utmost to insure that their rulings are as objective as is humanly possible. If such is the rule for a human judge, it certainly follows that Hashem Himself, the True Judge, does not pervert justice even in the slightest way. In fact, Hashem’s sensitivity to justice doesn’t extend to the offender alone. When the True Judge makes a judgement we can not only be sure that His verdict is exact in and of itself, but also that every effect that it has on any other person is also absolutely precise. How then can our connection to our illustrious forebearers have any relevance when we are being judged for our actions in the past year, and how do we understand the concept of Divine mercy? Don’t these concepts contradict our belief that Hashem's judgements are fair in every way?

Imagine a wealthy businessman. He may have everything that money can buy, but it didn’t come easily. He came to the shores of America when he was still a young boy, unable to speak a word of English. He had no rich parents to give him a headstart, and no money for a college education. However, slowly he worked his way up the ladder of success. There were many times when he didn’t know where his next meal would come from and often spent his nights without a roof over his head, but he never gave up. He invested a tremendous amount of efforts into his career, tediously building his business from the ground up until he finally achieved fantastic wealth. Now, let’s say that this man has a son who, unlike his father, doesn’t understand the meaning of hard work. In fact, he’s never worked a day in his life. He can’t even conceive of the efforts his father went through to build his empire, much less have done it himself. However, when this man eventually passes on, his son will inherit all his wealth. It doesn’t matter that the son never worked for this achievement, it comes to him solely because he is his father’s heir.

Just as this concept applies to material accomplishments, it is also relevant to spiritual ones. Our forefathers and foremothers were true businesspeople and they worked with outstanding devotion to amass a treasury of spiritual riches. Every time they struggled to pass the tests that were set before them they acquired new levels of success in building their spiritual character, and we, although we stand on a much lover level, are the sole heirs to this fortune. In this way, traits that the Avot and Imahot struggled to acquire are, to some degree, for us second nature. When Avraham Avinu passed the test of leaving his homeland, with all the difficulties that it entailed, and settled in the land of Israel, he implanted a passion to dwell in the Holy Land deep into the hearts of his descendants. It was only because of Avraham’s great determination that the hope of someday returning to Zion remained alive throughout so many years of bitter exile. Soon after Avraham arrived in Israel a famine descended upon the land, but his trust in the Almighty was not swayed. By remaining steadfast in his faith, Avraham thus handed down to all of us the ability to accept Hashem’s judgements and to never lose hope in times of adversity. Likewise, because he was willing to jump into a blazing furnace rather than violate his belief in Hashem, Avraham bequeathed this same internal fortitude to generations to come, giving them the superhuman ability to give their lives for Truth and die al kiddush Hashem. In these ways and countless others we have been privileged to benefit from the superhuman efforts that our forebearers invested in their lives.

When we look at all of the tremendous spiritual accomplishments of the generations before us, there is one factor that they all share. In addition to helping us to more easily acquire specific traits in our spiritual development, overall we have inherited the ability to cling to the truth; to give spiritual concerns priority over the material ones. Each and every one of us has an amazing ability to change our lives for the better, the strength to do teshuvah. This is the concept of zechut avot, the merit we have received from our forebearers, and if we look closely at the process of judgement, we can see the important role that it plays. Imagine two men coming into the courtroom, each of whom has been caught stealing. When the judge considers what to do with each of them, his primary concern is their rehabilitation. Which measures need to be taken to ensure that this offence is not repeated? If one of them is found to be of low character, having grown up amongst people of ill repute, certainly the judge has no choice but to punish him. This type of person is not very likely to change on his own. However, the other thief is completely different. He was brought up amongst people of high moral stature, and it was only through the influence of a bad friend that he landed himself in trouble. Intrinsically, this person is not a criminal, and if sent back to the influence of his family he could very well reform himself. From this example we can see clearly how two different courses of action may be taken with different people even though they have committed the same crime. While one was sent back to his family and the other was sent to prison, in terms of fair judgement there is no contradiction. Each person was dealt with in the way that is most fitting for his character, but both courses of action have the same goal.

In Hashem’s judgement as well we find the same calculations being made. Even if we have made mistakes, Hashem doesn’t desire to take revenge on us. His desire is that we improve our ways through the process of teshuvah, and like in our parable, there are two different ways that G-d can motivate us to repent. For someone who doesn’t have so much potential to change on his own, the only option is punishment. Hopefully, from this punishment the individual will be moved to introspect and change his or her path in life. However, we can also ask for mercy. We say, “Hashem, our Father in heaven, we know that we have strayed from the proper path, but it’s not a reflection of who we really are. We are like the thief who only transgressed because of the bad influence of a friend. We too have only strayed due to the influence of such a “friend”. Our desires for worldly pleasure told us that they could give us success and happiness if we would only listen to their advice, when in truth they left us with nothing. We have within us the ability to come back to a more spiritual life on our own, without punishment to motivate us. Please look at us and see that we emulate the attributes of our holy predecessors. We carry on their legacy in the character that we have inherited from them which lives within us. It is because of this that we beg You not to punish us. If You give us a chance we can do it on our own!”

When we ask Hashem for mercy we are not asking Him to pervert justice by simply overlooking our transgressions. Rather, we are asking Hashem to discern our high spiritual essence, the spiritual DNA that we carry with us, and recognize our great potential for self-improvement. If this is what we are asking for, then we really need to take a good look at ourselves and make sure that we meet these criteria. We must insure that we possess the qualities of our forefathers, kindness, mercy and most importantly the desire to place the spiritual before the material. Only when we exhibit such quality of character can we be sure that we will be worthy of Divine mercy.
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