“Remember for us the covenant of the patriarchs, as You said, ‘And I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham 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 holds 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 Hashem, 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?
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Before we attempt an answer to this question, let us first endeavor to reach a clear understanding about the roles and relationship between Hashem’s attributes of din and rachamim (strict justice and mercy, respectively).
Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent elements of divine justice. Hashem 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 Hashem’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, Hashem 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.