Last week I talked a little about how there were two elements really providing the texture to this time period in the Jewish calendar. The first is that we have now entered the month of Elul, in which we begin to prepare ourselves for the Tshuva, the repentence or returning, of the High Holidays. The other is that we are still in the period of Haftorot of consolation that lead us out of the holiday of Tisha b’Av—this week we read the fourth of them. I talked a little bit last week about how these two elements might be intertwined—about what it might mean to seek atonement after an experience or with a premonition, of catastrophe—how it might provide an extra measure of urgency.

It occurs to me now that this can mean two things: for some people, knowing that life has a certain sense of inevitable tragedy just by its very nature—that life is suffering, as the JuBus might tell us—gives us the incentive to live each moment to the fullest, and atonement may mean a realization of mortality—a numbering of our days that gives us hearts of wisdom—to discern and cleave to what is most signifcant.

But for others, atonement in the awareness of catastrophe has meant an anxiety to make sure you are free of sin so that nothing terrible happens to you—because events are just God’s way of letting you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

This idea certainly seems to have held sway in the minds of our ancestors, at least if we judge by the records they left us. The increasing weight and intensity of Elul comes about because you know you are getting closer and closer to the period of judgement—when God will sit upon the throne of judgement and decide, primarily based on your deeds and the force of your repentence, what your fate may be over the coming year. Just as in ancient times God decided that the Temple, the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalm, merited obliteration, and then, eventually, consolation.

Atonement, as Jewish tradition has long understood it, relates directly to two of the most significant aspects of the divine: justice and mercy; din and rachamim—the quality that holds us to a strict accounting of our deeds, and the quality that understands we are impossibly flawed, and so cuts us a little slack. One Jewish creation myth teaches that a world grounded solely in justice could never last—it would be like a failed planet in the pathway of an exploding star. The world is only sustained by the admixture of mercy with justice—of rachamim—wombness—divine compassion, which is all that keeps God from obliterating creatures as sinful as we are.

The sefirotic system of the kabbalah developed this into the concept of hesed and gevurah. Hesed is the unfettered flow of positive energy, good vibes, mercy, love, rainbows, and little puppy dogs. Gevurah, on the other hand, is the force that restricts, that sets limits, that makes the painful cut. We are taught that hesed is like the tent of Abraham, open on all four sides to receive visitors from any direction, and gevurah is Abraham’s knife, held over the bound and prone body of his son. But there is an important difference between chesed and gevurah, and din and rachamim—din and rachamaim are moral judgements, are expressions of a sense of justice that probes and determines our merits and demerits, whether we are bad or good. Hesed and gevurah seem more like mythic attempts to grasp an impersonal cosmic reality, a universe made of a substance that seems to be constantly making and umaking itself, flowing out and contracting, dancing creation and collapse. We can appreciate this reality in meditation, understanding, as Marge Piercy writes, that our bodies are “that momentary kibbutz/ of elements that have belonged to frog and polar/ bear, corn and oak tree, volcano and glacier.” We may learn from this slippery vision of the cosmos what balance is, but it seems to have less to tell us about justice, about what is right and wrong. In fact, a vision of nature as it is, at worst cruelly implacable and at best benignly indifferent—may lead us to say with the Talmudic heretic Elisha Ben Abuya—leyt din v’leit dayan—there is no justice and there is no judge. It may confound our attempts to establish any sense of justice at all.

But that’s what this week’s parsha, Shoftim, quite clearly attempts to do—understanding all the while what a difficult project, for a number of reasons, this is. Shoftim v’shotrim titeyn-likha b’khol sh’arekha, it begins, v’shiftu et ha’am mishpat tzedek. “You shall appoint judges and officers at all your gates…and they shall judge the people justly, with a righteous judgement.” Immediately, the text moves to charge these officials with the proper execution of their duty: lo tatEH mishpat lo takir panim v’lo tikakh shokhed… “Do not incline your judgment unduly in someone’s favor, do not recognize faces, and do not take bribes, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and confound the words of the righteous.” Then as a seal it offers us this famous phrase: tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhye… ” Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The whole parsha can be read as a kind of essay on what it means to be a rodef tzedek—how a mishpat tzedek, a righteous judgment, can be established in such a slippery world. The last image is a kind of existential rumination on what to do in a case when concrete justice can’t be established at all: a murdered corpse is found in a wasteland, outside the borders of any town, and no evidence can be found to establish guilt. The elders of the nearest town engage in a sacrificial ceremony which, if it does not actually determine who is responsible, alleviates the anxiety of an unsolved crime. Justice, here, appears to be a very imperfect human pact against the backdrop of an unknowable world—against the backdrop of the impersonal cosmic rhythm of hesed and gevura—its basically the best that we can do in the face of very unstable circumstances.

But most of the parsha is not as concerned with this high-minded philosophical idea as it is with the practical problems of setting up standards of justice and human beings to execute this justice. The standards themselves are not as much of a problem—the Torah rests on a sure sense of the authority of God as a law giver. The problem is that we need to rely on other people to implement these laws—and these people take bribes, and recognize faces, are blinded and have their words confounded by corporate influence. They lose the scent of the righteous judgment they should be pursuing. Sitting in judgment becomes an exercise in the use of power for personal gain. This same parsha actually talks about what it would mean to establish a king in Israel, an ultimate human repository of justice and power in the community, and does its best to ensure that the king never feels himself to be above the law. V’haya kishivto al kisei mamlakhtu, it says. “When he sits upon the seat of his sovreignty, he must write out a copy of this Torah, and it should be with him, and he should read it all the days of his life, so that he might learn…”

There’s a third problem—beyond the elusiveness of justice in the natural world, and the corruptibility of justice in human affairs, and that’s that sometimes the concept of what is just can begin to feel so repressive that it becomes unbearable. This is a topic of conversation among liberal clergy—the fact that most people who come to our synagogues don’t want to be told what to do, and that we’re not even sure ourselves what we would tell them if they did. We enter into religious community nowadays, it seems, for expansiveness—for rachamim and hesed, rather than din and gevurah. And why not? Restricttive religious law as a force has been remarkably destructive of the human psyche, in many times and places, leading to unnecessary enmities, to a shame in the inherent sexuality of our bodies, or to the wholesale exclusion of undesireable populations. And what isn’t outright offensive can often seem outdated, ungrounded in any holistic form of life, irrelevant.

And yet without some sense of what is right, the spiritual life flounders—there is no tshuvah, no return, unless you have a sense of what you are trying to get back to—unless you have some inkling of how to purify your sacred place so that you can commune with the most high. Spiritual crisis, more often than not, is not so much about losing your way, as it is about no longer being sure of what you were trying to reach along that way in the first place. Elsewhere in the Torah, reeling from the trauma of the Golden Calf, Moses has such a crisis, and he says to God, “Look, you have told me to elevate these people, but you have not told me by what power I am to do so. Show it to me, show me your true ways, show me what is right and just, show me your face so that I can know you.” This is the famous story where God answers by saying, “I cannot show you my face, because no one can see me full on and live, but if you brace yourself I will show you some trace of what I am.”

This story forms the kernel of a powerful teaching about justice in our world, by the French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, made popular recently in the Musar teaching of Rabbi Ira Stone. Levinas suggested that what we lack, in comparison perhaps to our ancestors, is a sense of commandedness—a firm sense of mitzvot that guide our lives and form the bedrock of our values, and this is not because we are sinners who have fallen short but because, like Moses, God does not show us God’s face, and we are left in confusion and corruption. But, he continues, also like Moses we may be privledged to see some trace of the divine—something that will give us a basic sense of justice, of oblilgation, of something we should live up to. Where, he asks, did God leave the evidence of God’s presence? In the light that streamed from Moses face when he came down from the mountain—this was the evidence that God had been there. The trace of God, the beginning of justice, din or gevurah, of the sense that you have some cause to channel and restrict yourself, something to live up to, something you can sin against, can be seen when you look into another human face.

Justice is elusive. If it were obvious we wouldn’t have to pursue it—the text would use some other verb beside rodef. Maybe the only thing we can be sure of is that we begin to return to it, we begin our tshuva, by looking at each other.