Make us Work for Your Justice

הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה. וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה. וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. וְצַדְּקֵנוּ [בצדק ו] בַּמִשְׁפָּט. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט /Hashiva shof’teinu k’varishona, v’yoatzeinu k’va’tehila, ve’haser mimenu yagon v’anaha, um’lokh aleinu ata Adonay l’vad’kha, b’hesed u’v’rahamim, v’tzadkeinu bamishpat [alt: b’tzedek u’b’mishpat]. Barukh Atah Adonay, melekh ohev tzedakah u’mishpat. “Restore our judges as at first, and our counselors as aforetime. Banish agony and groaning from us. Rule over us alone, in love and mercy, and justify us by righteousness. [Alt: rule over us in love and mercy, in justice and righteousness]. Blessed are You, King who loves righteousness and justice.”

The Amidah’s next blessing seeks God’s help so that Am Israel may establish a just society. In the Talmud’s homiletical explanation [Megillah 17b] of the order of blessings: once the exiles have returned to the Land of Israel, they must appoint judges who will defeat wickedness.

Ancient and Medieval worshippers – having little access to high-speed wireless – really knew their Bibles. Each allusion cast a vivid light on their davvening, and they sensed the unstated poetry between the lines of each reference. The Biblical source for this blessing would have made a classical Jew think about societies noble and perverse. In the 8th century BCE, Isaiah ben Amotz prophesied that the people of Israel had lost its way, to say the least, betraying its most noble aspirations. “Hear the Lord’s word, you chieftains of Sodom; give ear to God’s instructions, you people of Gomorrah [1.10].” “This faithful city was once full of justice, righteousness once dwelt there. But now? Murderers [1.21].”

Isaiah saw the moral wreckage of Biblical Israel. He was a person of vision, however, and never despaired. “Though your sins be red as crimson, they may yet turn snow-white [1.18].” In this spirit he carries God’s message of hope and renewal that supplies the first line of our petition: “I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as aforetime; once again you will be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City [1.26].” When we Jews davven this blessing and quote the first chapter of Isaiah – which also happens to be read in synagogue on the Shabbat before the 9th of Av, the national mourning day – we acknowledge what we have allowed ourselves to become and accept our potential to be better.

Exploitative, brutal societies are filled with agony and groaning. In this blessing, we beseech God to banish those painful sounds by helping us find leaders who will adjudicate and legislate complex human relations fairly. We want to banish the selfishness and narrowness that produces injustice in the first place. We pray that, through excellent human judges and leaders, God truly rules over us.

The final clause of our blessing differs between Ashkenazi and Sefardi liturgies, encoding slightly different approaches. The Sefardi version applies four adverbs to how God should rule over us: “בחסד וברחמים בצדק ובמשפט, in love and mercy, righteousness and justice.” This is a near quotation from Hoshea 2.21, in which God vows to “marry you in righteousness and justice, love and mercy.” The liturgist for that version probably flipped the order, because the convention of every Amidah blessing is to conclude the paragraph [or get as close as possible] with the word signifying the blessing’s theme. Our liturgist wanted to end on the word mishpat/justice. In this version, a davvener would ask for the fully rounded relationship with God, containing both the demand for strict justice and the tempering graciousness of divine love.

The berakhah works slightly differently in the Ashkenazi version. Here davveners ask that God rule over us mercifully and lovingly, to be sure. But then davveners intensify their demands on themselves: צדקנו במשפט, make us attain righteousness through justice. When I pray this line, and the subsequent coda [or hatimah], I reflect that since God “loves righteousness and justice,” it is inadequate for us to expect God’s mercy, infinite though it is. It won’t do the trick to pray that God’s loving grace will excuse the injustices we perpetrate. Yes, God will forgive, and we need that grace. But we must be demanding with ourselves, with our judges and teachers as in days of old. We must earn and attain the righteousness of Jewish society, by building the justice that God loves and exemplifies.

Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected that praying was like “dreaming in league with God,” making God’s fondest aspirations our own. This is the blessing in which that comes alive most fully for me, as a davvener. If God loves justice, then so must we. May we strive so intensely, aspire so grandly, work so diligently, that we do not need God’s forgiving mercy.