ROI (return on investment) is something that we think about routinely. Investors want to know what type of return they can expect to receive on their money. Students want to know the benefit of pursuing specialized education. People in challenged relationships seek to understand what they can expect to gain from their investment of time and resources into therapy or other interventions.
In most cases, ROI is measured by the bottom line. If the effort and investment result in a meaningful profit or gain, then it is considered to be worthwhile. If not, then the ROI is said to be negligible and the enterprise not worthy of future outlay. However, there is one notable exception to this rule. It relates particularly to this time of year, when we stand before our Maker in solemn hope that we will experience a positive judgment.
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol II, pp. 96-97) writes that our judgment rides not on our “bottom line” actions, but on the inner desires and motivators that exist within our hearts. He supports his argument by citing Ramban in Parshat Emor, who writes that Rosh Hashanah is a “yom hadin b’rachamim” and Yom Kippur a “yom harachamim b’din.”
The explanation to Ramban’s words, says Rav Dessler, is as follows. Despite the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah, we have the capacity to stir Divine mercy on that holy day by demonstrating such qualities of giving and compassion toward others. Conversely, we have the ability to transform the compassionate day of Yom Kippur into one of strict judgment if we are unable to engage in meaningful change.
This explanation helps us better understand the roles and relationship between Hashem’s attributes of din and rachamim (strict justice and mercy, respectively). Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent elements of Divine justice. Hashem either chooses to judge a person strictly or He applies compassionate mercy, and softens the severity of the true judgment against sinners.
However, this understanding is wholly inaccurate. Rashi, commenting on the first verse in the Torah, questions why it is that throughout the entire first chapter of Genesis, only the name “Elokim”—the Divine name used to express strict justice—is used when referencing the Creator. Yet, at the beginning of the following chapter (2:4ff), the combined term of “Hashem Elokim” is utilized (a term indicating that not only had rachamim become incorporated into Hashem’s mode of judgment, but had even bypassed din as the primary means of ruling). Rashi’s response provides us with a new insight into our discussion.
In the beginning it was His intention to create (the world) with the Divine Standard of Justice, but He perceived that the world would not endure, so He preceded it with the Divine Standard of Mercy, allying it with the Divine Standard of Justice. (Rashi to Bereishit 1:1)
Since the earliest stages of Creation, Hashem deemed it necessary for din and rachamim to be melded together to form one complete entity, working together harmoniously in response to Man’s misdeeds.
But, how does this work? How can din and rachamim be used in conjunction with one another to achieve a desired result?
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Volume 1, p.8ff) explains this idea through the use of the following example. Suppose that there are two young men who each rob a bank of the same amount of money. One was raised in a crime-riddled community without proper parenting and guidance. The other comes from an upstanding home; now, he has fallen in with the wrong crowd and has turned to a life of crime.
The judge, who happened to be a roommate with the second thief’s father during law school, rules that the first thief must spend two years in prison. His friend’s son, however, is required to pay a small fine and contribute 200 hours of communal service.
At first glance, this inconsistency in judgment would appear to be highly inappropriate. After all, they committed the same crime. If anything, logic would dictate that the criminal from the depressed neighborhood should be treated with more clemency, while the one who was raised in an upscale setting should be reprimanded more severely. Certainly, the judge would want to avoid any possible accusations of impropriety by letting his friend’s son off easy.
Rav Dessler explains that the proper objective of justice is not to punish criminals or sinners for their misdeeds. Rather, the goal must be to correct the crime or transgression so that they are not repeated in the future. In the case of the second criminal, who was raised in a home that valued proper conduct and respect for the law, this objective can best be achieved through a more lenient approach. This particular young man understands deep down what is right. With some additional guidance and a return to a strong, healthy environment he can be redirected along the proper path. Under these circumstances, even “justice” would agree that leniency offers the best means of turning this young man around. Time in the penitentiary would only exacerbate the problem.
The first criminal, on the other hand, does not possess a clear sense of proper social conduct. From his perspective, crime is a way of life, a means of survival. To allow him immediately back on the street would almost guarantee future repetition of criminal activity, which could result in even more dire results. Here, “mercy” would advocate for a stricter punishment, to suffer more today with the hope of a better tomorrow.
Hashem studies our desires and judges us accordingly. He asks, “What benefit will there be for him if I were to grant him the blessings that he seeks? What is the potential ROI to such a response?” If Hashem can discern a true desire for growth and teshuvah within us, then He will see the investment as more worthwhile. If not, then He may see the best recourse to be something very different from what we request, chas v’shalom.
As we approach Hashem in the coming weeks, we should aspire to give Him every opportunity to view us as individuals and a community who are on an upward trajectory, deserving of inscription in the Book of Life.
I wish us all a k’tiva v’chatima tova.
By Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at [email protected]