Be’er Mayim Chaim: The text does not seem to provide us with any clues concerning the meaning of the “reversals.” Rashi suggests that the pasuk criticizes us for reversing Hashem’s gracious attitude towards His people to one of anger.
Another approach takes note of the fact that almost all personality characteristics and traits – even those commonly assumed to be “bad” – can be put to good use. Passion, which so often attaches itself to improper objects, can and should be utilized in the performance of mitzvos with zeal and alacrity. Our pasuk decries our reversal of midos, in using passion for transgressions rather than mitzvos, and laziness in the performance of our Torah obligations. (Perhaps this is alluded to elsewhere: 2 “He shall not exchange it – not good for bad, nor bad for good.”)
We might also explain our pasuk as speaking favorably about Klal Yisrael! The navi wrote3 “In wrath, remember/ mention to be merciful.” Maharsha4 explains this to mean that even when He speaks of Divine anger and retribution, He manages to invoke the concept of compassion, even if only to state that He will not be employing it.
The significance of this is as follows. Hashem’s uttered dibbur packs a powerful punch. It is not easily changed, even if people have done teshuvah. As a hedge against the repentance that Hashem looks for, He formulates His gloomy forecasts with words that are broad enough to be adapted to a different meaning, should the need arise. In wrath, He mentions being merciful, so that people can reverse the original intent through their teshuvah. “Where it was said to them, â??lo ami / You are not My people,’ it will be said to them, “Children of the living G-d/ kel.'” “Lo” is the word with the greatest punch in the first phrase – you are NOT my people. The two letters of lo are literally reversed through teshuvah, and become kel, G-d.
So it is with Hashem’s gezeros. He phrases His powerful dibbur in such a way that their impact can be turned around in a different direction.
It is important to know, however, that this reversal takes place primarily within Man’s heart. Tzadikim react to tragedy and retribution by refusing to accept it as evil. They resolve in their hearts that whatever comes from Hashem must be good and only good. In effect, they reverse din and turn it into rachamim.
This is no game, and no mistake. What they sense is something quite profound – that din and rachamim are not opposites, not contradictory facets. Only one of those is “real.” Chesed and rachamim are primary; din is a necessary outgrowth of the others. While we don’t see them or usually experience them as the same – they do have quite different consequences – we can intellectually understand that there is chesed at the core of all din.
Some of us, like tzadikim, do a much better job of understanding this than do others. When they do, they actually change the course of His conduct from din to rachamim! The reason for this is that din is restrictive. It limits the display of Divine goodness; it is a form of hester panim. When the tzadik discovers and asserts the presence of Hashem locked into the din, he changes its very nature. By making the presence of Hashem manifest, it no longer functions as din, and can morph into chesed.
Din is thus “sweetened” by chesed, and the person remains enveloped by Divine compassion.
1. Based on Be’er Mayim Chaim, Devarim 32:20
2. Vayikra 27:10
3. Habakuk 3:2
4. Pesachim 87B