Judgment and Compassion

The room was still.  A grey, autumn morning light filtered through the slatted blinds upon the sleeping figure of an adolescent version of myself. The day was about to start like many others: clumsily dismiss the alarm clock, roll over, go back to sleep. I was certain of the maternal knock on the door that was soon to follow. Being a twelve-year-old, I had become reliant upon the second, more personal wake-up call from my mother. She would stand on the other side of my closed door and remind me that simply put, it was time to get up. This second method was quite insistent and significantly more persuasive than my alarm clock.  But on this particular morning, I was not going to give in or get up, and I was most certainly not about to go to Yom Kippur services.

This, it would seem, was a protest moment. And I remember my protest clearly. The seeds of discontent were planted during Kol Nidre services the night before, and had blossomed in to a full-blown protest by morning. Why on earth, I thought, should I have to spend a perfectly good day stuck at temple, wearing uncomfortable clothes, and confessing for sins that I, an angelic twelve-year-old, had not even had the chance to commit? Why should I do all the sitting and all the standing and all the chest-beating when I was blameless? And what was this bit about belittling ourselves with the whole “we are of little merit” - line? I was of GREAT merit! And while we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with this God who is so judgmental? I did not want to believe in a God who wanted me to feel ashamed of my mistakes—I was only a kid, for crying out loud! I can’t even imagine what was running through my poor mother’s head as she found herself arguing the finer points of theology and philosophy with her surly pajama-clad pre-teen, all the while trying to get me out of bed and out the door.

I’m pretty sure I went to temple that day, and I’m pretty sure that I sat on the bench in the foyer with arms-crossed for most of the service. I am certain, however, that my protest moment sparked a theological curiosity that has stuck with me ever since. I, like many of you, consistently find myself challenged by the High Holy Day prayers, and most especially the parts pertaining to judgment.

There are many layers of meaning available to us on this holy day, as evidenced not only by the words we say and the rituals we celebrate, but by the names we use to refer to it. Literally translated Rosh HaShanah, means the head of the year. Our tradition teaches that this day commemorates the Biblical 6th Day of Creation, upon which humanity was created. Rosh Hashanah is at its core an arbiter of time; it signals the turning of the seasons from the intensity of summer to the preparations for winter. In these moments we bid farewell to the year that has passed, and turn our attention to the new year that is about to begin. We stand on a threshold—a moment-between-moments—not knowing what the New Year will bring, and perhaps not entirely clear about what the last year has brought.

Within this paradox of time, this moment that exists unto itself, Rosh HaShanah is also Yom HaDin—The Day of Judgment. As we stand poised between the past and the future, we are made to pause, to contemplate our lives, our actions, our relationships. Before we re-up for another year of membership, as it were, we spend some time re-reading the contract and the fine print. This is where the connections between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur begin to appear. Rosh Hashanah calls our attention to the judgment inherent in renewal, which is necessary to make proper use of the next ten days. Just as you would revisit the terms of a lease or a contract before diving in to another year of commitment, so do we revisit the terms of our existence: how have we behaved this past year? Have we been true to ourselves, or have we been in service to something else?

We can make these judgments about ourselves, but the idea of being judged by another isn’t always easy to accept. The judgment we speak of when we call this day Yom HaDin is not the judgment we encounter within and amongst humanity—it is something quite different. To think that God judges us the way that we judge each other is to seriously underestimate God.[1]

We are, without a doubt, our own harshest critics and we are, by design, critical beings. In morning prayer we express our gratitude for the ability to understand and discern, because those skills are key to our survival. To discern between safe and dangerous is a primal instinct that leads us to form judgments—the good kind—the kind that keep us alive and out of harm’s way. We judge for self-preservation—and unfortunately sometimes just to fuel our egos—but God’s judgment is different. We are mortal, imperfect human beings, imbued with the limitations and skills that make it possible for us to exist in this world. Luckily for us, in God’s eyes, perfection is not one of those qualifying conditions.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown tackles the shame that arises when we miss the mark: which is inevitable if you’re human. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Gradaute College of Social Work and has spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Early on in her book she outlines the direct correlation between shame and perfection. “Shame,” she says, “is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed and never good enough.” [2] In order for shame to flourish in our lives we must feed it three things: secrecy, silence and judgment.[3]

When we are taught to keep our failures secret, we feed our shame. When we cannot speak about our vulnerable moments, or mull them over with trusted colleagues and friends, we feed our shame. And when we hold on to unrealistic standards of perfection, leaving no room for healing and growth, we feed our shame. Jewish tradition understands that perfection is not the aim of human life—it is not even humanly possible. The will of spirit, the desire to be moved, to be encouraged, to be forgiven, are far healthier impulses of the human condition than the ego-driven futility of perfectionism. A sense of balance, of resilience, is what we should seek instead of an impossible standard.

This notion of resilience has become increasingly popular in recent years when it comes to raising children, as we recognize the value in teaching endurance and the ability to bounce-back from failure. Brown recommends that we practice what she calls Shame Resilience as we embrace our imperfections. She describes this as " . . . the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to develop more courage, compassion and connection as a result of our experiences.”[4] To feel shame, to fall short of expectations is an alienating experience. Part of what makes feelings of shame so powerful and destructive is our impulse to keep them private. Acknowledging our shortcomings within the context of community on the High Holy Days affords us the opportunity to shed the secrecy, to own our failings, to trust that we will be forgiven for falling short of perfection, and to—just possibly—accept our failures as part of what makes us genuine.

Ours is a tradition that understands and appreciates the multi-faceted nature of God. God is not only like a judge and arbiter on this day, but also like a compassionate parent. On this Yom HaDin, we call upon the balancing attribute of compassion to help us forgive. We model this forgiveness on the notion that God is Compassionate; which is fundamental to a Jewish view of the Divine. Rachamim, the divine attribute of compassion sits exactly opposite from Din, the judgment for which we begin to prepare today.

Yom Ha Zikaron, Day of Remembering, is a name for this Holy Day that encapsulates this desire for Compassion. Usually when we speak of Zikaron we refer to a human sense of remembering—of memorial for those who have died. But in this instance of Zikaron it is God, we are taught, who is remembering us. With Compassion, the Divine Judge takes into account the fullness of who we are: our faults and our failings, as well as our strengths and our successes.

In his 1991 film, Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks offers a funny and poignant treatment of this balance between Judgment and Compassion and how our souls might be judged in the afterlife. With an official tagline of “The First True Story About What Happens After You Die” Brooks plays opposite Meryl Streep as the film follows these two departed souls through their three-day stay in Judgment City.

In between indulgent meals and visits to the Past Lives Pavillion, the recently departed stand trial for the ability to ‘move on,’ —but if they are deemed unready they must return to earth for another go-around. Brooks’ soul is comically flawed, far from perfect, and seemingly driven by fear. Streep’s soul, on the other hand, is highly evolved, altruistic, compassionate and giving. The two experience their time of judgment in significantly different ways, with Streep sailing through her hearings, while Brooks struggles to highlight the positive moments of his life among a sea of bad choices and reactions. Spoiler alert: the trials end as each soul expected, with Streep moving on and Brooks going back. But the love that blossomed between the two during their sojourn in Judgment City proves more powerful than judgment, and gives Brooks the ability to accept and be himself. They are allowed a powerfully cinematic reunion when Brooks rejects his sentence and recognizes his redemption in Streep’s loving and compassionate soul.[5]

Just as Yom HaDin invokes God’s judgment, Yom HaZikaron invokes God’s compassion. We implore it in every recitation of the Amidah, throughout these ten days. “mi chamocha el harachamim? Zocheir y’tzurav l’chayim b’rachamim.”

 “Merciful God, who compares with You? With tender compassion You remember all creatures for life.”[6]And during the Torah service we remind ourselves, and God too, of that Compassion. Listen for it tomorrow, as we remove the Torahs from the ark:

Adonai, Adonai – El rachum v’chanun; erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet . . .” “God, compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true.”[7] Rachamim fills our liturgy, and indeed our tradition’s way of understanding Creation. Contemporary scholar Alan Morinis explains that: "A world run according to the principle of stern justice would leave no room for free-will, learning, change or growth, because every single time you did something wrong, mechanical rules would mete out results instantly and without variation. To forestall such insufferable rigidity, God included the attribute of compassion as an essential feature of creation, right alongside judgment."[8]

Examples of this balance between Divine Judgment and Divine Compassion are scattered throughout our texts. A story from the Talmud imagines God deliberating between the value of judgment and compassion upon creating the world: “If I created the world with only the attribute of compassion,” God ponders, “no one will be concerned for the consequences of their actions, and people will feel [exempt from acting] badly. But if I create the world with strict judgment alone, how could the world endure? It would shatter from the harshness of justice. So I will create it with both justice and compassion and it will endure.”[9] Morinis goes on to write that, “Modeling our own pursuit of wholeness on the traits of God requires that we, too, need to be capable of acting in both ways: with compassion in the form of compassion and compassion in the form of judgment.”[10] We are in partnership with God, we emulate the attributes of God and speak of them in ways that we as humans can understand. This din, then, this judgment, is one of compassion. But we are not simply to let ourselves off of the hook. On the contrary, we are meant to look carefully at our shortcomings as well as our goodness, and to judge with compassion.

This is the sermon that I offer to my twelve-year-old self, rebelling against the very idea of judgment. When we say that we are “of little merit” it is as if we bow before this power that is greater than ourselves, and acknowledge our limitations. We stare into the unknown of the year to come, and we ask for another trip around the sun, another chance to get it right—or at least to be our truest, kindest selves.

On Yom HaDin we stand before God and weigh our deeds, as on a scale. If our good deeds outweigh the bad, then all is well. But what if our good deeds and our bad deeds are equally weighted (as is the case for most of us)? In such an instance, the sages[11] say, it is as if God places a thumb on the scale, on the side of the good. God, the optimistic tie-breaker, wants us to succeed. So take the time to notice the moments when you have felt shame, when your pursuit of perfection has gotten in the way of living a life of authenticity. Let us be comforted in the knowledge that God wants us to succeed, and when we judge let us strive to do so with the same compassion we receive.

L’Shana Tova.


[1] Rabbi Simon Jacobsen, 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays (Kiyum Press, 2003)

[2] Brown, Brene, The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010) p.38

[3] ibid, (p. 40)

[4] ibid (p. 40)

[5] “Defending Your Life,” 1991

[6] translation from Mishkan HaNefesh:Rosh HaShanah, p. 46

[7] translation: ibid, p. 228

[8] Morinis, Everyday Holiness, (Trumpeter Books, 2007) p. 77

[9] Hagigah 12a

[10] Morinis, p. 86

[11] Rosh HaShanah 16a