Throughout our nation’s long history we have resided in countless countries and lived under numerous governmental regimes. For the most part, our existence in the diaspora has been difficult at best, intolerable at worst.
During better times, Jewish populations were allowed to exist within their host societies with limited rights. They were permitted to pursue a livelihood and seek shelter and protection so long as they understood their place and accepted their second-class status. During times of persecution, our people were forced to endure financial limitations and extortion, social isolation and humiliation, religious-based allegations and mistrials, inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions and cruel death at the hands of their oppressors, to the tune of millions of innocent victims.
Of course, our people have also experienced periods of tranquility and hospitality within their host nations. Ancient Persia, the Golden Age of Spain, Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire and post-Napoleonic Western Europe all come readily to mind.
And God saved the very best for last. It is pretty safe to suggest that no host nation has been kinder and more welcoming to its Jewish citizens than the United States – certainly not for an extensive duration equal to the three hundred and fifty year-period we have called this country home. America has really lived up to its moniker as a “medinah shel chesed” (nation of kindness,) providing sustained respite and opportunity to Jews who sought refuge, peace and prosperity here after enduring atrocities in their respective homelands.
Despite the general positivity of our experience as American Jews, there have been some challenging moments, times where indigenous bigotry and prejudice brought fear and concern to our people. The first wave occurred in the 17th century, when Peter Stuyvesant governed the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Only a pointed directive from his supervisors back home stymied the governor’s wish to prevent Jews from joining the colony. Subsequent anti-Semitism came in the form of General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11 in 1862, which temporarily expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi based on unsubstantiated and clearly prejudicial allegations of marketeering.
But there was no more trying time for Jews in this country than during the first few decades of the 20th century, when racist, eugenicist theories abounded throughout the land, much as they did across the Atlantic. Hate groups targeted Jews as well as other minorities. In 1922, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell instituted a quota limiting the number of Jews who could attend the university (a precedent soon followed by many other Ivy League schools). Two years later, the Reed-Johnson Act put into law legislation that sought to restore an “American” ethnic character by setting immigration quotas designed to maintain a predominantly white, western European composition similar to what had existed at the time of the 1890 census. This greatly limited Jewish immigration to the United States during the interwar period and well into the time of the Second World War, when refuge was desperately needed by those seeking to escape the Nazis. In the early 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin, leader of the Christian Front, became an influential radio voice and used his platform to spew hateful venom against the Jewish people. And we are all aware of the anti-Semitism that raged within FDR’s State Department. The president’s unwillingness to do more to save the Jews of Europe is also well documented.
The collective suffering that our nation has endured at the hands of our enemies, even here in this benevolent country, should naturally instill within us a particular sensitivity regarding how we view other peoples. In fact, the Torah is replete with admonitions to be sensitive to converts and others because we were “strangers in the land of Egypt.” Certainly we recognize and take pride in our special character and destiny. We relish our role as a “light unto the nations” that was chosen to lead by example and teach the nations of the world a better way. Still, it seems at the least to be a bit out of character that we would ask for special divine clemency due to our distinct lineage and heritage, even when our actions over the past year would indicate we don’t particularly deserve it.
Yet that is exactly what we seem to do when we stand before God during this auspicious time. “Remember for us the covenant of the patriarchs, as You said, ‘And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Issac , and also My covenant with Abraham I will remember, and the Land will I remember’ ” (Leviticus 26:42 and the Selichos liturgy). One of the central elements of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is the concept of zechus avos, which maintains that we, as children of holy forefathers, can tap into our ancestors’ great spiritual merit and achieve a degree of atonement that would otherwise be impossible. Despite our own inadequacies, we are able to stand before God and beg forgiveness due to the special relationship that He enjoyed with our progenitors.
The obvious question is, how is this possible? How can it be that God, the ultimate arbiter of truth and justice, would look past our actual deeds and grant us special reprieve simply because of our lineage? Is it logical to suggest that despite the fact that we may be as guilty of sin (if not more so, at least on a relative level) as the nations around us, we can still be exempted from our poor behavior simply because of a special bond which formed some four thousand years ago? Where is the evenhandedness in such judgment?
Before we attempt an answer to this question, let us first endeavor to reach a clear understanding about the roles and relationship between God’s attributes of din and rachamim (strict justice and mercy, respectively). Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent elements of divine justice. God either chooses to judge a person strictly or He applies compassionate mercy, and softens the severity of the true judgment against sinners.
However, this understanding is wholly inaccurate. Rashi, commenting on the first verse in the Torah, questions why it is that throughout the entire first chapter of Genesis only the name “Elokim” – the divine name used to express strict justice – is used when referencing the Creator. Yet, at the beginning of the following chapter (2:4ff), the combined term “Hashem Elokim” is utilized (a term indicating that not only had rachamim become incorporated into God’s mode of judgment, it had even bypassed din as the primary means of ruling). Rashi’s response provides us with a new insight into our discussion: “In the beginning it was His intention to create [the world] with the Divine Standard of Justice, but he perceived that the world would not endure, so He preceded it with the Divine Standard of Mercy, allying it with the Divine Standard of Justice” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1). Since the earliest stages of creation, God deemed it necessary for din and rachamim to be melded together to form one complete entity, working together harmoniously in response to man’s misdeeds. But how does this work? How can din and rachamim be used in conjunction with one another to achieve a desired result?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Volume 1, p.8ff) explains this idea through the use of the following analogy: Suppose there are two young men who each rob a bank of the same amount of money. One was raised in a crime-riddled community without proper parenting, guidance and sense of citizenship. The other comes from an upstanding home but fell in with the wrong crowd and turned to a life of crime. The judge, who happened to be a roommate of the second thief’s father during law school, rules that the first thief must spend two years in prison. His friend’s son, however, is required to pay a small fine and contribute two hundred hours of communal service.
At first glance, this inconsistency in judgment would appear to be highly inappropriate. After all, they both committed the same crime. If anything, logic would dictate that the criminal from the depressed neighborhood should be treated with more clemency, while the one who was raised in an upscale setting should be reprimanded more severely. Certainly the judge would want to avoid any possible accusations of impropriety by letting his friend’s son off easy. Yet, as noted above, that is exactly the same type of “impropriety” which we ask Hashem for every time we ask Him to spare us in the merit of our forefathers.
Rav Dessler explains that the proper objective of justice is not to punish criminals or sinners for their misdeeds. Rather, the goal must be to correct the crime or transgression so that they are not repeated in the future. In the case of the second criminal, who was raised in a home that valued proper conduct and respect for the law, this objective can best be achieved through a more lenient approach. This particular young man understands deep down what is right and has conducted himself accordingly in the past. With some additional guidance and a return to a strong, healthy environment, he can be redirected along the proper path. Under these circumstances, even din, strict justice, would agree that leniency offers the best means of turning this young man around. Time in the penitentiary would only exacerbate the problem.
The first criminal, on the other hand, does not possess a clear sense of proper social conduct. From his perspective, crime is a way of life, a means of survival. To allow him immediately back on the street would almost guarantee future repetition of criminal activity, which could result in even more dire results, for him and for those around him. Here, rachamim, unbounded mercy, would advocate for a stricter punishment – to inflict suffering today with the hope of producing a better tomorrow.
When we ask God to factor in his love for our forefathers as part of our judgment, we are not looking to simply take advantage of positive past relationships. Rather, we are asking Him to see the latent potential within us as children of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, and judge us in that light. In that respect, we are like the robber who comes from a good home environment but has become entangled with negative influences. Other nations, however, lack that same pedigree and cannot tap into the same reservoirs of nobility and service. Let us develop this idea further.
In Ruach Chaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin notes the slight change in terminology between Avos 5:4, which refers to Avraham by the term “avinu” (our father), in contrast to the preceding mishnah, where the title is omitted. He states that the reason for the distinction is due to the fact that the previous mishnah focuses on pure genealogy, namely the ten generations from Noach to Avraham. In that respect Avraham was not decidedly more of a paternal figure for our nation than was Noach, from whom all of humanity originates. What distinguishes Avraham as our collective father, says Rav Chaim, is the fact that he successfully completed a series of tests – the focus of the subsequent mishnah – that strengthened and internalized his deep sense of belief. That belief he bequeathed to future generations, as if through our genetic code, becoming our progenitor on a much deeper level.
Numerous illustrations bear out this point. Take, for example, the issue of self-sacrifice. Why is it, asks R’ Chaim, that so many Jews, even the irreligious, have been willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sanctification of heaven? Consider how many completely disconnected Jews chose to identify with their Jewish ancestry during the Holocaust, at their own peril. Why would they do so when the week before they wanted nothing to do with their Jewishness and aggressively pursued a secular identity? The answer: Because of Abraham’s readiness to choose death in a fiery furnace rather than acquiescing to the sacrilegious demands of King Nimrod.
We see this again in relation to our historic connection to the Holy Land. What is the basis of a Jew’s ever-present longing for his national homeland, even after nearly two millennia of life in exile? How are we to understand why so many secular Jews engaged in self-sacrifice to settle Palestine when the gates of America were still wide open? We can attribute this to Abraham, who hearkened to God’s voice and left his extended family and homeland for a faraway, unknown destination (Canaan).
Yet another application of this idea is the Jewish penchant for physical and spiritual endurance. What has allowed Jews to develop tolerance for even the intolerable, believing that all would eventually work out for the best? Abraham, despite the crippling famine that greeted him upon his arrival in Canaan, never once questioned the divine plan. These and other spiritual qualities were transmitted directly to the Jewish people due to the self-sacrifice and fundamental faith of Abraham. And of course there are many additional qualities that have been transmitted through the spiritual attainments and deep commitment of our other forefathers and mothers.
By asking God to grant us clemency in the merit of our forefathers, we are not asking Him to “play favorites.” Rather, we are imploring Him to look deep within us and see us not only for our past misdeeds but also for our future successes. We hope He chooses to focus on the latent potential that lies imprinted within each of us and grant us the judgment that will allow us to convert our great potential into reality. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us aspire to give God every opportunity to see us as true descendants – spiritual as well as physical – of the avos and thereby achieve the type of favorable judgment we all desire.