As we prepare to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt at Passover this Friday night, now is a time of year when we Jews think about the meaning of freedom, justice, law, and responsibility. Last week at the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), I had the honor of opening the convention with a teaching on these issues, and I’d like to share that teaching with you: 

The eleventh blessing of the weekday Amidah is a prayer for judges and the justice system. It says:

Pour Your spirit upon the rulers of all lands;
guide them that they may govern justly.
O may You alone rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.
Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat
Blessed are You Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.

Why does this prayer conclude by mentioning both tzedakah  and mishpat? Since it’s about judges and governance, wouldn’t it have been sufficient for it to say: “Blessed are You Adonai, who loves justice”? What does tzedakah have to do with the law?

This pairing of mishpat (justice/law) and tzedakah (righteousness) in relation to the justice system goes all the way back to the Tanakh – and our ancient Sages found it perplexing. They say in the Talmud: “Surely, where there is mishpat there is no tzedakah, and where there is tzedakah, there is no mishpat!” In other words, these two concepts would seem on their face to be mutually exclusive: Law is law, and righteousness is righteousness – and the one has nothing to do with the other.

In resolving this difficulty, our Sages discover a new concept of justice – “a synthesis of opposites,” as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik puts it – and this new concept would inform Jewish jurisprudence from that point forward. They call it: Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness.

Rabbi Soloveitchik says that, in Jewish thought, mishpat and tzedakah – law and righteousness – are not mutually exclusive. Rather, he says, they are “two sides of the same coin.” 

Mishpat (justice/law) refers to the rules, and the principles, and the processes that are written in law books and constitutions. These rules and principles are the backbone of the justice system. By necessity, they are formal and formulaic, and they are designed to be applied uniformly to everyone.

In mishpat, justice is blind.

But when it comes to real life, justice cannot be completely blind. It can’t be blind to the particular circumstances in which people exist and act, or the nuances and vagaries of practical living. And that’s where tzedakah comes in. 

Tzedakah is the empathic, compassionate, human dimension of justice. It’s found not in books, but in life.  It’s about real people, living day to day. It’s about listening to their stories, and empathizing with them. 

It’s about understanding that life is messy and complicated, and that, sometimes, mechanically reading the text without also considering the context – and applying the rules without also considering what is right – may produce lawful outcomes, but not always just outcomes.

As Soloveitchik puts it: “Law that lacks tzedakah, that does not draw from the wellsprings of feelings and tenderness, of heartfelt ways of pleasantness and inner kindliness, that is confined by its boundaries and does not break through its borders to go beyond what the law requires – such law is absolute wickedness.”

The antidote to such wickedness is Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness.  This, in our tradition, is the meaning of true justice.

Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.

Chag Sameach!