לאל עורך דין * The God who Renders Judgment “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’” thereby introducing into his descendants’ consciousness the idea that God judges the entire world – a central theme in the liturgical poetry (piyutim) of the High Holidays.
The piyutim that describe God as arranging trials, examining hearts and knowing thoughts are an invitation to guided imagination, an opportunity to see ourselves in a vulnerable situation, without truly being at risk. Imagine yourself entering a court. Are you standing alone, facing the Judge, Accuser, Knowing One and Witness? (translation, and capitalization: R. Jonathan Sacks). One rabbinic and liturgical line of thought indeed leaves the individual alone, as it says in Pirkei Avot 4:22: “He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, and He is destined to judge…. before Whom there is no respect of persons, no taking of bribes...”
But there is another school of thought, that imagines a legal system fully staffed by attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense. The Hebrew word for these positions are of Greek origin because prior to the Hellenistic period the people of Israel were unfamiliar with the practice of law as a profession. When they did encounter it, the Rabbis were concerned about the ability of a skilled orator to slant a trial and distort justice. The Talmud says this explicitly: “If a person appears before a judge has a good defense attorney he will be saved; and if not he will not (TB Shabbat 32a), and therefore they did not allow attorneys to represent clients in the earthly courts they administered.
However, the heavenly court was different in their eyes, precisely because of the ability of a skilled orator to achieve a good outcome for his client, “For there is not one good man on earth who does well and does not sin”(Ecclesiastes 7:20). In the Bible, prophets defended the people before God, beginning with Moses after the sin of the golden calf and the incident of the spies. In response to his efforts God declares, “I will forgive them in accordance with your words” (Numbers 14:20). When the age of prophecy ended, there was no choice but to transfer the role to someone else. As Rabbi Prof. Richard Hidary summarizes the Rabbi’s opinion, “God would prefer to be persuaded towards mercy by a good lawyer even at the expense of justice.”
But before we begin to imagine angels flying around in black robes and powdered wigs, let us return to Pirkei Avot 4:11: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: One who does a single commandment acquires a single defender. One who does a single sin acquires a single prosecutor. Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against punishment.” The commandments we keep, and the good deeds we do are the defense that stand by our side not only in the heavenly court but also – and perhaps mainly – in our lives here and now.
Hod veHadar 5777
--more to come--