By Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum
Justice and Mercy
“And Elokim (G-d of Justice) spoke unto Moshe saying: I am YHVH (G-d of
The verse seems to be contradictory. How can the G-d of Justice declare
Himself to be the G-d of Mercy? Justice seems to be strict and unyielding.
Mercy seems to be lenient and bending.
The ancient pagans were confronted by that very problem. How could there be
Justice and Mercy co-existing in the world. They concluded that there must
be more than one god: gods who constantly struggled for supremacy. The
Egyptians in the time of Pharaoh envisioned the great fight between Set,
the god of justice, and Horus, the god of mercy.
G-d tells Moshe that there is only one G-d. He has both attributes and each
one is constantly present. It is only our lack of perception that has
difficulty uniting Justice with Mercy. This concept sums up the very basic
philosophy of Judaism. “Hear O Israel! YHVH (the G-d of Mercy), our Elokim
(the G-d of Justice), G-d is One” (Devarim 6:4).
It would seem to us that the greatest of G-d’s accomplishments was the
creation of the universe, the formation of natural laws, and its population
with vegetation, animal life, and rational beings. Yet, this great
accomplishment takes up but a small portion of the first parshah,
Bereishis. The overwhelming bulk of the Torah deals with the laws for the
Jewish people, in particular, and the morals and ethics for mankind, in
G-d’s laws are very specific and all encompassing. From the moment we wake
up, and say Modeh Ani, until we fall asleep, and recite the Shema, the
regulations of Torah apply. The rewards are great. The punishments are
frightening. From the banishment of Adam and Chava from the Garden of Eden
until the swallowing by the earth of Korach and his congregation, we see
consequences of deviating from G-d’s law.
At the time of the Exodus, G-d had the unenviable task of having to free a
nation of slaves and form them into a disciplined free nation. G-d knew
that there would be times they will falter. Mankind in general is subject
to the frailties of human weakness. How much more a nation that was abused
and misused for hundreds of years. G-d knew that they would have to be
treated with both attributes: Justice and Mercy. They had to be treated
with Justice, so that they would learn the correct behavior, and mercy
because of their frailties.
At the divine revelation at Sinai, G-d proclaimed these two aspects of His
nature to the Children of Israel. “I am YHVH (G-d of Mercy), your Elokim (G-
d of Justice), a jealous G-d who imposes the guilt of the parents upon the
children to the third and forth generation. And (yet) I show kindness unto
the thousandth generation to those who love Me and keep My commandments”
Tisha B’Av is the day that G-d’s anger and justice manifested itself
against the Jewish people. He destroyed His Temple. The holy city of
Yerushalayim was reduced to ashes. His children were exiled and sold into
slavery. Yet, here we are, today, continuing to exist and thrive. Had it
been a punishment solely of justice, we would not be here today. We
abandoned Him. He should have abandoned us. But He did not. On Tisha B’Av,
we sit on the synagogue floor and read from the words of the prophet
Yirmiyahu, “For I am YHVH, doer of kindness, justice, and righteousness in
the land” (Yirmiyahu 9:23).
In our own families we play a G-d-like role. We too must temper our Justice
with Mercy. Justice and punishment can never be inflicted in a state of
anger. Such a punishment will convey the wrong message. Justice can only be
served when the punishment is carried out in a state of love.
I once saw a small child run out into the street. A car was rushing by. The
driver slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt inches in front of the
child. The mother, who had seen the whole incident from the porch, came
running out to her child. She picked up her precious youngster. She hugged
him dearly; then she slapped his hands hard. She had tears in her eyes. She
screamed at him, “Don’t you ever run out in the street again.” She shook
him hard. “Never, ever run out in the street. I love you, poor baby.”
That was Justice and Mercy.
AND THE EGYPTIANS SHALL KNOW
It is puzzling why the ten miraculous plagues were needed in order to free
the Children of Israel. G-d could have caused Pharaoh to free them
immediately without all these dramatic events.
Moshe and Aharon had a dual mission. Not only were they to lead the
Israelites out of Egypt, they were to introduce the concept of a
monotheistic G-d to the Egyptians. The Egyptians believed in a whole
collection of gods, goddesses, major and minor gods, along with god
consorts. The main temple of the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus was in
the city of Heliopolis. There, the nine supreme gods were worshipped. In
addition to the nine gods of Heliopolis, of course there was the pharaoh
himself who believed that he too was a god. He was the tenth god.
When Moshe and Aharon informed Pharaoh, “So said YHVH, the G-d of the
Israelites, ‘Send forth My people…’” (5:1) Pharaoh responded, “Who is YHVH
that I should hearken unto His voice and send forth the Israelites? I do
not know of YHVH…” (5:2). Pharoah was telling Moshe and Aharon that the G-d
of the Israelites was not a member of his group of gods and therefore he is
not obliged to listen to Him.
Perhaps each of the ten plagues was presented to demonstrate the
ineffectiveness of each of the Egyptian ten god’s. Osiris was the Egyptian
god of the Nile. The Egyptians believed that Osiris gave life and
sustenance to the people because the Nile itself was the vital life-source
of ancient Egypt. The first plague was Blood. The waters of the Nile turned
to the symbol of death, blood. That was a sign of G-d’s superiority over
The second plague is called Frogs. The famous commentator of the Mishna,
Rabbenu Ovadiah Bartenurah, tells us that the plague was not really frogs.
It was Crocodiles! (Bartenurah’s Memoirs of His Travels) That certainly
adds a new dimension of terror to the plague. The crocodile god Sobek was
the earthly representative of his mother, Nut, the goddess of virility. The
Medrash (Shmos Rabah 10:3) tells us that the crocodiles bit the Egyptian
males at the "normally covered parts of the body" and deprived them of
their virility. This plague showed that G-d was superior to virility-
goddess, Nut, and her crocodile son, Sobek.
The famous sun-god, Ra, was lord over the earth. The Egyptians thought he
reigned supreme over the whole earth giving it life. Aharon hit the earth
and then the dirt and dust turned into a massive swarm of lice. Ra was
powerless to stop the plague.
The forth plague was an invasion of swarming creatures, scorpions and
venomous snakes. (Rashi 8:17) The Egyptian god of destruction was the
serpent-god Set. Yet he was helpless, unable to destroy the plague that
afflicted his Egyptian people.
The fifth plague was a Pestilence that afflicted the cattle of the
Egyptians. The horned-goddess, Isis, was the goddess of fertility, nurture,
and protection especially over the cattle. Yet she had to stand by idly as
her cattle died by the tens of thousands.
The sixth plague was Boils. The Medrash (Shmos Rabah 11:6) says that the
Egyptians were afflicted with leprosy that causes the flesh to decay. This
plague was to show the ineffectiveness of Nephythys, the mother-goddess of
embalming, the preservation of the flesh.
The seventh plague was a destructive Hail-storm. The deity, Tefnut, was
supposed to be the beneficent rain-goddess. The Egyptians prayed to her to
stop the devastating hail. The Egyptians quickly learned that she had no
power over the G-d of Israel.
The eighth plague was Locusts. The swarm of locust blocked out the sun and
feverishly devoured the crops of Egypt. The god of vegetation, Geb, was
The ninth plague was Darkness. Rashi (10:21-22) tells us that the air
became thick and black. It was so thick that the Egyptians were trapped in
the very position they had assumed when the plague struck. They were unable
to move. This plague was to demonstrate that the Egyptian god of air, Shu,
was no match for the G-d of Israel.
The tenth plague was the Death of the Firstborn. Pharaoh believed that he
too was a god. Yet, he had to plead with Moshe to spare his own life. Some
G-d had told Moshe, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am G-d” (7:5).
After the tenth plague, Pharaoh and all of Egypt knew this to be true. The
baseless faith in the Egyptian pantheon had been duly demonstrated.
It is interesting to note that according to the ancient Egyptian historian,
Manetho, and the Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, the name of the
Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus was Amenophis, more commonly called
Amenhotep. His son and successor, Akenaten, did away with the Egyptian
collection of gods and taught a monotheistic religion throughout the land.
However, he also taught that he was godlike since he was god’s conduit to
earth. Some habits are hard to give up.
Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum
These Divrei Torah are excerpts from Yochanan "Jeff" Kirshblum's new book,
Thinking Outside the Box, which can be purchased at any local Judaica book store or online at www.israelbookshop.com.