Rabbi David N. Young
“...only that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before Your God” (Micah 6:8).
This is one of the most powerful verses in our Hebrew Bible. It is frequently quoted, it appears on synagogue interiors and exteriors, it was on the outside of the UAHC (now URJ) headquarters in Manhattan when they resided on 5th Avenue. In the Talmud, it is quoted as one of the summaries of all Jewish teaching, encompassing all of Judaism’s obligations for how we act in our world (Makkot 23b-24a). I use it at the bottom of my emails as part of my signature, as do many of my colleagues. I often teach that it is the Jewish superhero mantra.
The deeper meaning of the Hebrew mishpat and chesed (justice and mercy) are polar opposites. Mishpat is about meting out punishment to sinners. When someone does something wrong, mishpat dictates what they should do or have done to them to make reparations. Chesed is about extending kindness to others. When someone makes a mistake, it is our chesed that allows us to look past the mistake, accept that they are human, and move on without reminding the other of their missing the mark.
It is nearly impossible to render perfect mishpat with perfect chesed. The two are incompatible. It is extremely challenging to punish and forgive at the same time. Only god seems to have the ability to do both simultaneously, which is perhaps why the third statement closes the quote. We should do our best to balance justice and mercy, but never forget that the One Who Balances All is truly the keeper of punishment and mercy. That should humble us before God, even as we strive to follow this superhero creed and do God’s work in the world.