Chessed, Mishpat & Tzedek: Kindness, Justice & Righteousness


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Last week we discussed a few concepts germane to Tisha B’Av and Teshuva, highlighting some of that solemn day’s Torah readings. In addition, Tisha B’Av’s morning Haftorah addresses why God destroyed the Jews:


“A slaughtering arrow is their tongue, deceit they speak with their mouths: they speak peaceably to their friend, and inside [their hearts] they plant their ambush. On these [people] shall I not visit them [with punishments] so says God; if with a nation as this, shall My soul not take revenge?”[1]


God describes the evil for which He punished the Jews: they were two-faced and wished the destruction of their peers. We learn that baseless hatred “sinas cheenam” was the cause for the Temple’s and the Jews’ destruction. This sin stems from self-aggrandizement.

We then understand the conclusion of Jeremiah’s words[2]:


“So says God, ‘let not the wise man praise himself in his wisdom, nor the mighty in his might, nor the wealthy in his wealth. But only in this let the one who praises praise…understand and know Me for I am God, performing kindness, justice and righteousness in the Earth, for in these do I desire, so says God.” 


Since we learned that the Jews’ sin was ego-motivated, the correction is to oppose the self with a true recognition of human equality through God’s principles of kindness, righteousness and justice. Living as if one is the center of the universe allows one to trample underfoot another person. But recognizing another person with equal rights to one’s self, we are enabled to treat them as ourselves…Hillel’s very summation of the entire Torah, and Maimonides’ concluding words in his “Guide”.

So important are these three traits, they are included in God’s 13 Attributes, and they are God’s consideration for giving Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven[3]:


“For I have loved him, for he commands his sons and his household after him, and he will guard God’s path, performing righteousness and justice, in order that I bring upon Abraham what I spoke.”


We also mention these values in our daily prayers (Shmoneh Essray) three times a day, and in Ashray, again three times a day. What I would like to focus upon is why these three values are so central to Torah.



Chessed, Mishpat & Tzedek

What is kindness, “Chessed”? Maimonides says this refers to acts of goodness towards one, upon whom nothing is due: i.e., a stranger, or even a parent, but giving him or her more than what is necessary. “Mishpat”, justice, is the act of rewarding the good in others, and punishing their evil. And “Tzedek”, righteousness, is acting in accord with what is morally due, i.e., giving a poor person indebted to you his only coat at nightfall, so he might not be cold…even though that coat is your rightful collateral for his debt. But we find “Tzedek” not only in connection with performing acts for “others”, but even towards one’s self, and surprisingly…even towards God! How do we understand these two additional cases of righteousness? Deuteronomy 6:25 reads, “And righteousness will be to us, that we guard and observe to do all the commands…” The righteousness here refers to doing what is morally correct for “ourselves”. It makes no difference that we are both, the acting and receiving party. For righteousness refers to any act, in which we uphold some moral truth. And as spiritual beings, we perform righteousness when we give our souls life through Torah observance.

But how does this explanation fit into God’s praise of Abraham[4], “And He took him outside and He said, ‘Gaze now at the heavens and count the stars if you can count them’ and He said, ‘So shall be [numerous] your seed.’ And he [Abraham] trusted in God, and He considered his trust as righteousness.” God says that He considered Abraham’s trust in Him, as righteousness. This offers a deep insight into Abraham’s keen perfections, and that God recorded these words, indicates that God desires us to know this perfection of Abraham.

What is this perfection? It is this: Abraham’s sense of righteousness was not limited to the sphere of interpersonal relationships. Rather, Abraham’s sense of righteousness was of such perfection, that he expressed it in relationship to God. Abraham’s knowledge of God included the primary idea that God and truth are synonymous. Abraham understood God to be the source of all knowledge, and this reality to Abraham, surpassed all others. It was this recognition that compelled Abraham to ask, “How shall I know they [the Jews] will inherit the land?”[5] He never doubted God, but always yearned to know more about this Creator of the universe. His gravity towards this amazing truth – that the universe as magnificent as it is has a Creator – was so intense that Abraham did not flinch when asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. His relationship with this Creator overcame his subjective wishes.

Now, as Abraham viewed God essentially as the One with ultimate knowledge, he knew that God’s word must be synonymous with truth, for God’s will is that knowledge permeates the universe, and that He created man alone with intellect, for the sole purpose of apprehending knowledge. This explains why Abraham’s trust in God is referred to as “righteousness”. For Abraham paid to God what was due Him: i.e., trust. We then refine our definition of righteousness as “Giving what is due to any being”: giving food to the hungry, money to the poor, Torah observance to ourselves, and trust in God. All these acts would rightfully be termed acts of “righteousness”.

So important is our correct understanding and performance of righteousness, that God records this praise for Abraham acting righteously…even towards God. On a deeper note, this means that Abraham was not moved by interpersonal considerations, where his self-image was central, needy of human accolades. Abraham’s sense of what was most important in life was in the realm of God. His relationship with God surpassed all other concerns. It was however due to this relationship, that Abraham was so concerned for mankind, and why he risked life and health to teach others. He understood this to be God’s will, and God’s will was Abraham’s life. Abraham’s perfection is seen in his relating to God, as we relate to our friends. Just as we express kindness towards those in our lives, Abraham surpassed us, expressing trust in God, as his method of displaying his conviction in God’s faithfulness. Trust for Abraham, meant conviction in God’s attributes.

To Abraham, God deserved his acts of righteousness, as it is befitting God that man “trusts” the One, who is the cause of all “truths”. Righteousness refers to acts befitting the recipient.

(Why didn’t Abraham act towards God with “kindness”? This is because kindness is applicable only in cases when the recipient is benefited, and nothing can benefit God. He is self-sufficient.)



God’s ultimate Kindness

But now, let us understand why kindness, righteousness and justice are Torah fundamentals. One Rabbi explained Divine “kindness” as God’s creation of the universe and man, granting man existence so as to realize and enjoy the truth that God exists. Thus, God’s creation of mankind was the ultimate act of kindness, since we did not yet exist, and therefore, had no claim on God to do anything. His creation of us was with no obligation, no justice yet existed so as to demand He create man, and therefore, His creation of mankind is complete kindness.

This was the ultimate and first act of kindness. Therefore, when we are obligated by Torah to “be kind, since God is kind, to be merciful since God is merciful” we are in essence reflecting on God’s act of creation, His paradigm act of kindness. The Torah command to be kind, then, is really a means of recognizing God as “Creator”. For when we are kind, we do not follow our subjective notions and expression of kindness, but we must follow what God deems as kind. We do not heal murderers, or give money to idolaters. We must study God’s definitions, since He alone determines what is kindness. And when we study His methods, we arrive at the original act of kindness: His creation of us. We conclude that the command to “be kind” is truly targeting the greater goal of our recognizing God as “Creator”. And this concept is essential to our observance of the most satisfying life, since subservience to God’s will, means we are following the One who knows what is best for us.



Common Bond

These three values have a unifying theme: they all address the area of ‘relationships’. Kindness refers to relationships where the good is not necessary, but yet helpful; righteousness is when the good we do is warranted by the recipient’s condition; and justice refers to a necessary “response” to others (be it reward or punishment) with the objective of perfecting or deterring the recipient. In all three cases, we relate to another based on our assessment of what is beneficial, befitting, or warranted. In all three cases, we are sustaining what we determine is “good”.

A Rabbi once taught that although Torah study is the greatest mitzvah, it is essential that we enact those ideas we study. He explained that since man’s life centers around the realm of interpersonal relationships, it is in these innumerable interactions that we can express conviction on those learned Torah values. For with knowledge alone, and no expression of those values, man’s convictions are lacking. Humans are designed to express that which they are convinced. So the man who praises himself must praise that He knows God, who “performs kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth”. This means that just as God’s perfection is not theoretical, but put into practice, man too must emulate this great Divine perfection with his own actions.



Application to Lebanon

Another common bond is that all three perfections are truly proper, only because the recipient “deserves” our good actions. Situations deserve our good response if they meet with conditions approved of by God. God created life, so He alone determines when life is to be spared, or destroyed. As we mentioned earlier, we do not heal a murderer, but he is put to death. And in war, we must adhere to God’s considerations, not the opinions of world leaders, political pressures, or our emotions evoked by pictures of dead children. God destroyed all life with His Flood, and on occasions, commanded us to do so, including children[6]. He teaches that there are times and conditions when life is not to be preserved. And if we ignore God’s considerations that are based on the ultimate good for us, we will cause the ultimate harm to ourselves.

For this reason, it is vital that the IDF and Israeli leaders confer with independent thinking and well-versed Rabbis so they may learn what is considered “just” in God’s eyes when in battle, so they may properly favor the lives of IDF soldiers, over alien civilians.

[1] Jer. 9:7,8

[2] Jer. 9:22,23

[3] Gen. 18:19

[4] Gen. 15:5,6

[5] Gen. 15:8

[6] Deut 20:16