Think about an argument that you have had with someone in the past year. Some time when you really got angry. Picture the scene. What did the other person do and say? What did you do and say? Think back to what led up to the fight, and what happened after it was over. Are you still angry about it?
Now I have a question: What color were the other person’s eyes? Can you even picture their face, or is it a blur?
It is not only when we are in a fight that we don’t look at one another. We tend to be pretty self-centered in most of our interactions. As society becomes more fractured and people become more atomized, this is only getting worse.
Self-centeredness lends itself to being more judgmental of others. We are less willing to see things from another person’s perspective.
And yet, that is exactly what we ask God to do for us. We want God to take note of us, to see things from our perspective, and have mercy.
It is ironic, because the dominant depiction of God during the High Holidays is as a King. Last week, for Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated creation. God is a Creator King. Today, on Yom Kippur, we stand in judgment before our creator. God is a Judge King.
What does every King need? A throne, of course. The Hebrew word for throne is kisei. The image of God’s kisei appears frequently in our High Holiday prayers.
One of those thrones appears in the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. V’yikon b’chesed kis’ekha — “Your throne is established in love.” V’teshev alav be’emet — “and You sit upon it in truth. ‘Truth’ for you are judge and prosecutor, expert and witness…” The image is of God as a King and a Judge, reviewing the deeds of all of Creation, passing judgment on us on Rosh Hashanah and sealing it on Yom Kippur. It is a terrifying image, suggesting that our actions in the past year seal our fate in the year to come. There is no escaping the truth of our deeds. The best we can do is avert the severity of the decree. It is not particularly reassuring.
Fortunately, this is not the only kind of throne that we find in the Mahzor. Another part of our Yom Kippur service is called Selichot. We recite the words El Melekh yoshev al kisei rachamim. “God, King, who sits on a throne of mercy.” That is the image of God that we want. “acting with unbounded grace, forgiving the sin of Your people, one by one, as each comes before You, generously forgiving sinners and pardoning transgressors, acting charitably with every living thing; do not repay them for their misdeeds.” The God of Selichot is the polar opposite of the God of Unetaneh Tokef: a God of mercy rather than a God of justice.
Our goal, through the season of repentance, is to elevate the Divine King from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy. It is why, for example, we add an extra l’eilah to the Kaddish. L’eilah l’eilah: Higher and higher. Rise up, O Lord, to Your Throne of Mercy.
This tension between justice and mercy, din and rachamim; law and righteousness, mishpat and tzedek, is found throughout Jewish tradition.
It is in the commentaries and midrash and even in the Bible itself. It is reflected in two most commonly appearing Divine names. Yud Hei Vav Hei is the unpronounceable name that we read as Adonai or, “The Lord.” The other name is Elohim, which we translate simply as “God.”
Jewish tradition understands these two names as reflections of the two aspects of the Divine persona. These attributes oppose and balance one another. Adonai is mercy and Elohim is Judgment.
Throughout the creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Divine is repeatedly referred to by both names, together: Adonai Elohim—”The Lord, God.” This is atypical. Usually, the Torah uses one or the other name. It must mean something important. A midrash offers a parable (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).
There once was a human king who had some drinking cups. The king said to himself, “if I put hot water in them, they will shatter, and if I put cold water in them, they will crack. What to do? What to do?”
So what did the king do? He mixed the hot water with the cold water and then filled up the glasses so that they would not break. (This is not rocket science, folks.)
So too did the Blessed Holy One say: “If I create the world only with the attribute of compassion alone, I will tolerate everything and the sins will proliferate uncontrollably. But if I create the world only with the attribute of justice alone, how would it be able to stand?”
“So,” the Lord God concludes, “I will create it with both judgment and compassion.”
So far, this is a pretty straightforward midrash. There are several rabbinic texts that say something similar. But the two concluding words are unique: V’halevai ya’amod. “Would that it stands.”
This ending is delightfully ambiguous. God says, “I’ll give this a shot. I hope it works.”
The resulting world, our world, is a confusing mess. Fate is unpredictable, and may or may not reflect a fair consequence of our actions.
This tension is on display in full force in the Book of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon. The book opens with God’s command to deliver a prophecy against the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh. Without any explanation whatsoever, Jonah runs the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship. When the inevitable storm appears, Jonah is asleep in the cargo hold. The other sailors are doing everything possible to survive. They each pray to their own gods. They throw overboard anything that is not nailed down.
Nothing works. When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he is incredulous. “How can you be sleeping at a time like this! Get up and cry out to your god! Ulai—Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish!”
Jonah ignores the captain in silence. It’s like he wants to go down with the ship. So they cast lots to identify the person on whose account the storm has come. Of course, the lots indicate Jonah.
“What did you do?” the sailors cry.
Again, Jonah is silent.
“What can we do to calm the sea?” they ask.
Finally Jonah speaks, “Throw me overboard and the sea will calm down, for I am the cause.”
The sailors are heartbroken. They do not want to perform such a terrible action. But the storm is raging stronger by the minute, and they have no alternative. Before they do it, they offer a prayer to Jonah’s God. “Please, Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person…!” Then they toss the prophet, and the storm ceases. In appreciation, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to God.
What is up with Jonah? Why does he run? The text offers no explanation. You would think that he might try to argue with God. Perhaps he could pray when the captain approaches him. What is going on in this guy’s head? The man has a death wish. He is on a one-way journey of self-destruction. If not for the piety of the sailors, he would have brought them down with him.
God will not let Jonah off so easy. Instead of letting him drown, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah alive and deposit him on dry land after three days. God orders Jonah, once again, to deliver a prophecy of destruction to Nineveh. Realizing that there is no escape, Jonah performs his task. He walks through the streets declaring, Od arba’im yom v’Ninveh neh’pachet—”Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”
Compelled by these five inspiring words, the entire city—from the King to the people to the livestock—puts on sackcloth and fasts in repentance. God backs down from the evil that had been planned for them.
Jonah’s reaction is exactly the opposite. The forgiveness of the Ninevites “was exceedingly evil to Jonah, and he was angry.”
Now, finally, at the beginning of chapter four, Jonah reveals his motivations in what the text describes as a prayer to God. It does not sound much like a prayer, though. “This is exactly what I said would happen. That’s why I ran away so quickly. I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil. Now, Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”
Jonah still harbors his death wish. Why is he so upset? In this book, God is governed exclusively by the attribute of mercy. Jonah knows it well. He is certain that when the Ninevites hear his prophecy of doom and destruction, they will repent.
God, who is always ready to forgive a sinner, will then have to forgive the Ninevites. Jonah’s prophecy of devastation will never come about and he will be made to look the fool. He would rather die than be embarrassed.
If God is driven solely by mercy in this story, then Jonah is governed by strict judgment. The world he wants to live in is a world in which the wicked are always punished. He is willing to suffer to make this happen. Jonah would rather die than act to prevent the deaths of others he deems not worthy. He wants to invoke the God of justice, but this is not a story about the God of Justice. In this book, it is a merciful God who saves the sailors, prevents Jonah from drowning, and forgives the Ninevites, along with their animals.
Jonah is closed off to the possibility of change. He is closed off to considering the internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of anyone but himself. He will not allow himself to consider it. Justice prevents it.
Contrast him with the ship’s captain. The captain says Ulai—”Maybe.” What a beautiful, hopeful word. The captain does not know why the storm has risen. His world, and that of the Ninevites, is one in which is mercy is possible. He does not know if Jonah’s prayer will work. But he is hopeful. Ulai. “Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish,” he offers wistfully.
The captain’s ulai sounds like God’s Halevai ya’amod from the midrash of the cups. “Would that the world stands.” We live in a world in which justice and mercy are both present. Harsh, unrelenting punishment, competing with forgiveness and second chances.
I have suggested before that whenever we talk about God, we are actually talking about ourselves. The midot, God’s qualities. are what we imagine to be the best possible attributes that a human being can achieve, but better.
So when we ask God to ascend from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and when we read how Jonah is unable to prevent God from acting with compassion, we are talking to ourselves. It is we who are overly judgmental, and who suppress compassion for others in our relationships and interactions. We are the ones who need to rise to the throne of mercy.
But it is so hard. Every day, we have to deal with people who drive us crazy.
That person who lives under the same roof, who leaves their socks out on the floor of the living room, or the family member who yells at them for it. The child who screams at a parent to change the radio station in the car, or the parent who insists on listening to the news. (This is all hypothetical, of course.)
At school: the disruptive student who takes up 50% of the teacher’s time.
At work: the coworker who stubbornly refuses to see that my solution to the problem at hand is clearly the best one. The employee who arrives late and goes home early while I work hard at my desk.
In the news: the politician who is clearly driven by the pure quest for power and ego-fulfillment, and the blind, naive supporters. Why can’t they see the facts, which are so clear and straightforward?
My knee-jerk response is always to judge others. Like Jonah, I do not take time to consider the experiences and emotions that another person might be feeling. Instead, I judge that person only according to the impact of their actions on me, personally.
One of my favorite lessons in Pirkei Avot is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.
Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut. “Judge every person to the scale of merit.”Pirkei Avot 1:6
Imagine scales of justice, with one side representing guilt, and the other side representing or innocence. We are encouraged to do everything possible to load up the side of innocence.
I am really good at this, an expert, really… for myself. I find all sorts of ways to justify my behavior, to excuse my mistakes. I am so good at defending myself against the critiques of my family members, friends, and coworkers.
When it comes to other people… not so good. Giving other people the benefit of the doubt does not come easily.
Consider every confrontation with another person that you have ever had. Estimate the percent of time that you were the side in the right. What would the percentage be? 50/50? I don’t think so.
Human beings are naturally biased. We have a strong tendency to be merciful with ourselves and judgmental of others. This is called “illusory superiority.” It is when a person tends to overestimate his or her own qualities and abilities compared to others.
80% of all drivers think they are above average. Look around the room. 80% of us think that we are better than half of you.
I know what you are probably thinking, because I am thinking the same thing: “but in my case, I actually am better than average.” Sure you are.
Mashing up the Pirkei Avot teaching with the Torah’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, adds
Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, makes excuses also for your fellow.
Is that doable? The next time someone cuts me off on the freeway without indicating their turning signal, can I make an excuse for them? Let’s try.
- Maybe there is a woman about to give birth in the backseat.
- Maybe there is a toddler having a temper tantrum.
- Maybe the driver did signal, and I just didn’t see it.
- Maybe the driver has been on the road for three hours and really needs to find a bathroom.
Imagine the story that would explain the behavior to be perfectly reasonable, even preferable perhaps—given the circumstances.
This is easy when it comes to people we don’t know and whom we do not have to face directly. It’s easy to make up a creative story that probably isn’t true about someone I have never met before. What about people we do know?
I recently heard an interview of Alan Alda on the podcast, Hidden Brain. He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? in which he draws upon his work helping engineers and scientists to become better communicators. Effective communication all comes down to “empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking.”
In the interview, Alda quips, “I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.”
He suggests a simple practice that can help us develop greater empathy, improve communication, and improve our relationships. While interacting with someone, try to name the emotion that this person is feeling. Psychotherapists are trained to do this in clinical settings, but there is no reason why the rest of us cannot employ this practice in our everyday interactions.
Alda suggests that we don’t even need to name the emotion. Just taking note of the color of a person’s eyes can help us become more loving in our relationships.
I am far less likely to get mad at somebody if I have a sense of what they are feeling and thinking, or if I have taken a moment to look deeply into their eyes. This can be an effective way to elevate ourselves from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy. It is a way of conveying to myself, and to the other person: “I see you, and I am listening to you.”
Alda writes that
Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking… Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening. But if I do listen—openly, naively, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.”Alan Alda. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: 2017). pp. 10-11.
What a profound statement! In how many of my conversations can I truly say that I was willing to be changed by the other person?
That is what it means to sit on the throne of mercy. In our prayers, this is the essence of what we ask for from God. Take note of us. Look at our lives. See how much we struggle. Look at the good things we have done. Look at how hard we have tried to repair our mistakes, to improve? See us. And forgive us.
I do not know whether there is a God who is listening to all of these prayers, but I do know that I ought to be listening. Am I able to get up from the Throne of Judgment, and take a seat on the Throne of Mercy?