Two weeks ago, I went shopping at Tesco’s late on Thursday night, my usual hour for the pre-Shabbat round-up of the items on the family list (except that I invariably stupidly forget one or two of the things the others urgently need). I managed to fill the trolley, but had a painful back and was forced to squat down on the floor for a moment next to the cash desk. Within seconds two members of the checkout team were at my side:
Are you alright?
Yes, I’m OK thank you. Only I’ve got a bad back.
Don’t worry. We’ll put your items through the check-out, pack them for you and take them to your car.
They didn’t just say it; they did it. It made all the difference, not just to my back but to my spirits.
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘laws’. The older I get, the more I am grateful for Halakhah, Judaism’s unending debate, rooted in the Torah, of how it is right, fair and compassionate to act in every situation. I’m thankful, too, to live in a society where by and large the laws are just. Like many others, I am increasingly aware that justice and compassion can never be taken for granted and that we must stand up and speak out against every breech and infraction of the equal dignity of all people. The last thing we should do is take justice for granted.
But justice alone is never enough, as a detail in tomorrow’s Torah portion makes clear. The Torah insists that a lender who takes his neighbour’s garment as pledge must return it before dark. Perhaps it’s the man’s only nightshirt: ‘What then shall he sleep in? If he cries out to Me, I will hear him [says God] because I am merciful’. (Exodus 22:26)
The ancient rabbinical text Mechilta comments: ‘Why is “I am merciful” stressed? Because, says God, it was through mercy that I created the world’.
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein of Pinsk (1860 – 1941) notes in his Torah Temimah that the lender could say in all fairness: ‘The man hasn’t repaid my loan; I’m entitled to keep his pledge’. To such an attitude God responds: ‘But I made the world through mercy’. Rabbi Epstein then records the famous account of how God saw that a world based on justice alone could never survive and therefore counterbalanced it with mercy.
We live in increasingly harsh times. I fear what laws may be passed, or enforced, which will end up disadvantaging and punishing the weakest in society: the poorest, the outsider, the stranger, those who have no one to fight for them, exactly those groups the Torah constantly reminds us to treat with particular concern.
I worry that kindness, compassion, the imagination to think what life might feel like for the other person, will be a victim of this hardening of the social arteries as we enter an age of greater insecurity, fear and anger.
My back is, thank God, far better and I’m running again (with the doctor’s blessing). I hope I’ll soon forget the pain. But I hope I’ll never forget those moments of kindness in the supermarket.
The world depends on justice. But it’s the kind deed, the gracious word, the compassionate act, which ensures that the world still has a heart. We’re all part of that heart and we’re all responsible for it.