הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה. וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה. וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. וְצַדְּקֵנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
Getting there together
There are three elements to this prayer; restoration of just leadership, removing sorrow and suffering, and asking for God’s rule. It’s not particularly obvious how one follows from another.
The Riva suggests there is a correspondence between the first half of the Amida and the second; the first half are more personal requests, and the second half are broader and more abstracted. The earlier personal request of a return to wholeness and teshuva parallels this request for the return of leadership and justice – הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ / הָשִׁיבָה. The first blessing speaks about our narrow personal path, and this one is about the broader collective, where everyone makes their way back, and that only happens with good leader and role models.
Good ol’ days
The Torah talks about the administration and enforcement of law and justice with an acknolwedgment that the availability of quality judges will vary from time to time and place to place – הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם. Our sages note that you can only make use of what’s available to you, and it’s pointless to compare the relative ability of judges. Not everyone is going to be Moshe or Samuel, but the best leader available to you must be treated on par with them by necessity. The best you have might not be all that, but if he is the best available then you must accept his authority and judgment.
Our sages teach us to respect the leaders we have; and here we are asking for judges like the good ol’ days – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה. Doesn’t this prayer violate that sentiment?
It’s all relative
Perhaps aren’t just suggesting that we respect the leaders we have. On a certain level, the quality of a leader is determined by the quality of the followers.
When Moshe stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, God commanded him to stop and descend because his people had corrupted their ways, what with having forged a Golden Calf they were celebrating. The superficial explanation is that God sent Moshe down the mountain to stop the festivities; but on a deeper level, the potency of the leader is directly proportional to what the people deserve. When his people were eager and excited to receive the Torah, they empowered Moshe to climb the mountain the Torah. But when then lost their way, their leader had no business staying in the clouds, so God tells Moshe to climb down; his people aren’t where they need to be for him to carry on.
And it goes the other way too; we get the leaders we deserve based on merit and relatability. We don’t deserve to be lead by a Moshe, but if he was here, we wouldn’t understand each other, which ties back into the link between this prayer for the return of great leaders to the return to teshuva. If we were better people, we’d deserve better leadership.
It’s important to highlight that we aren’t asking for better, which is to say different leaders; we ask for our leaders to be and do better, like the greats of our past – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה
Guidance and Judgment
This blessing asks for restoration of great judges and counsellor – שׁופְטֵינוּ / וְיועֲצֵינוּ. While a judge imposes law, a counsellor advises and guides us through situations, and we need both in our lives. You always want to have good low and mid level advisors, arming you with the information and perspective you need to make good decisions. But there are times the best advice in the world doesn’t, when you’re too biased or jaded or stuck. In those situations, you need someone to tell you what you need to do.
But we should have no illusions that we need judgment and counsel in tandem. If you submit to someone imposing what you need to do too often, you might be doing the right thing, but you won’t be much at all. You need to take counsel and be sure to exercise your own judgment as well.
In days gone by, a core member of communal leadership was a spirit guide, the prophet,, or shaman. Our books talk about how people would regularly seek insight with the Kohen Gadol in his capacity as the oracle entrusted to consult the Urim v’Tumim; or kings taking instruction from prophets about who they had to be and what they had to. These interactions don’t lend themselves to ambiguity; they give crystal clear guidance and direction. If you needed direction, focus, and purpose, there was a designated place to go to get answers; you wouldn’t have to figure it out for yourself – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.
One of the defining features of the zeitgeist in our times is a sense of spiritual disorientation, the feeling of being orphaned from meaning and who we are, lost in this vast and chaotic space we inhabit. There is no designated place to go for answers, and we very much have to figure it out for ourselves – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.
But if the nature of the answers we seek looks different from our ancestors, the starting point of the question is very much the same. The Torah anticipates things being too difficult for us to determine on our own, and tells us to seek guidance – כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט / וּבָאתָ אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל־הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. Definitionally, if the Torah expects we will get stuck with questions from time to time, it necessarily requires us to think for ourselves.
There are times we get stuck and can’t find the answer, don’t understand our ordeals, can’t unlock meaning in our painful experiences. Indeed, experiencing something that feels unfair is itself one of the most painful experiences without meaning to sanctify it – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.
While the nature of our questions and answers might be substantively different to those of our ancestors, it bears wondering whether there is a comparison to draw. We might suggest that our struggle is greater than theirs, because our answers shrouded with mystery in a way theirs were not.
But in all likelihood, there isn’t really a comparison to draw in our struggle; ours is ours and theirs was theirs. If you’re a diamond dealer, the tiniest cut or flaw adds or destroys enormous value. If you’re a real estate developer, a bump on the ceiling or a great coat of paint aren’t going to make a huge difference.
Our struggle might be bigger and more acute, but that doesn’t offer commentary on which is better or worse. Our sages remind us that God considers great the things we consider small and trivial, and that being removed from the plugged-in switched-on state of our ancestors mean that the value in our victories is enormous. They didn’t bring about a final redemption, but we still can. It’s not because we’re better than our greats, but that our role takes place in concealment, darkness, and uncertainty.
Aside from the plain sense of this prayer requesting good judges, in a profound sense, it is also a request for better judgment. The Torah talks about the importance of establishing and maintaining a good justice and law enforcement system at our gates – שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת־הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶדֶק.
The Kotzker read this as the need to exercise good judgment over our gateways and openings to the world – sights, smells, sounds, people, and ideas. Who or what are we letting into our lives, and does it live up to the ideals we once had? הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה
Our sages teach of a universal beginning, that all children in the womb is accompanied by an angel that teaches them the wisdom and secrets of the Torah and the universe, only to promptly erase this experience upon birth. In our sage’s conception, this is a person’s first exposure to wisdom, your first identity and personality that predates everything else about you. The personality you have cultivated has been shaped by everything in your life; but it is a secondary judge or personality, influenced by your circumstances, gifts, struggles, and successes. Perhaps we are asking for our judgment to return to the state of idealism and clarity we once had – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.
When Moshe approached the end of his life, he spoke with God about succession planning. It was important to him that the next leader of the Jewish People do a good job, and the way Moshe characterizes doing a good job is revealing, echoed as it is in the beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes, praising God as the knower of secrets – חכם הרזים. Our sages explain this as an acknowledgment of God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our complexity as individual hearts and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective, and that’s what Moshe wanted in the next great leader.
There is no leader who is a one size fits all, because people are different and need different things at different times. But if the messaging has to be different, the attitude has to be the same; that every individual must be met as and where they are. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz advises that the only way a teacher can care about each individual student is to see them as your own children.
R’ Shlomo Freifeld ran a yeshiva that admitted students from the broadest and most diverse backgrounds. One student was a particularly bohemian free spirit, and would occasionally tell the rabbi about his travels, living in the woods among native peoples and their folk religious experiences, and rather than smile and nod, the rabbi would engage substantively. One day, the student was early for a meeting with the rabbi and looked through his office bookshelf, perusing all the familiar tomes, Midrash, Mishna, Halach, and spotted a colorful book among the usual collection; a book on native culture and folklore, their customs, rituals, and way of life. As unique as this anecdote is, it wasn’t unique to the rabbi; that’s the attitude and orientation it took to get through to each student that crossed his threshold.
הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה – Doesn’t everyone wish for teachers and mentors who care like that?
But it’s not fair
Experiencing something that feels unfair is itself one of the most painful experiences, with no meaning to sanctify the pain – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.
At the end of his life, the great Chafetz Chaim wanted to travel to Israel and applied for a visa to travel. The immigration office sent him from one department to another, ultimately determining that he needed to present a birth certificate as proof of identification. Of course, aged 90 and born in a small town in the 1800’s in an age of political upheavals, he didn’t have a birth certificate, so they sent him to the registrar of births and deaths to get one. But when he got there, the clerk told him that he could only issue a birth certificate with two witnesses to the birth. The Chafetz Chaim explained that he was 90 years old, everyone alive at his birth was long dead and the requirement was a legal impossibility. The clerk apologized and said that his hands were tied – the rules are the rules and there was nothing he could do.
Sometimes the rules are the rules, and what passes for justice is actually experienced as injustice. Under Nazi rule, killing Jews was faithfully upholding the law, and helping or hiding Jews was the criminal offense.
When we ask for leaders who promote justice, we mean the real thing, not some internally consistent kafka-esque nightmare.
Utilizing high office
A judge can be a judge, like a king can be a king. That’s great, and we’d be sitting pretty if everyone took their jobs seriously a tried to do a good job. But it’s possible to transform the entire position with the right attitude.
The Torah says that King David and King Solomon sat on the throne of God; which our sages take to be a unique description of how they weren’t in it for themselves. They dedicated their lives to using the position to establish greater religious access and make life better for their people; so they are characterized correctly as sitting on God’s throne, not their own, because they channeled the powers of their office for God, not themselves. When our leaders act for us and for God rather than themselves, it’s the closest possible thing to living under God’s protection, like our ancestors in the wilderness – וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.
Uncomfortably often, leaders and politicians start out idealistically and noble with the best of intentions, but before long, elections and realpolitik take their toll and they become part of the establishment they wanted to change. Every first term politician wants to be a reelected second term politician; and their job becomes about retaining the seat of power and office, not the people they once so badly wanted to help. Perhaps part of the prayer is that our leaders hold onto that initial enthusiasm and perspective of wanting to make things better, before the title and before exercising power – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.
Hevei mitalmidei Ahron
Love peace, chase peace, draw them to torah
Peace is Ahron
But draw close to torah is moshe!
Why associate with Ahron?
If you’re the guy that fixes relationships, they love you!
Ahrons skill was getting them to see through him
With kindness and with mercy
We ask God to rule us exclusively in kindness and mercy – וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.
Did you ever break something at home as a kid and get punished? Did your sibling ever do the same thing and get a different punishment? That is something that happens all the time. The same crime can receive a range of sentences, based on things like previous offenses and likelihood to reoffend, but also something as trivial as the judge having a bad day. Sometimes, an example must be made to deter others from doing the same; except that can very quickly stop being a consideration of justice.
But God can judge with mercy and kindness, righteous and justice at the same time.
God loves righteousness and justice
This blessing concludes with something unique in the Amida – an affirmation of God’s love for anything, and we ought to take note. We don’t affirm God’s love for healing or wisdom; only for righteousness and and justice, which is not to suggest that God doesn’t love those things, just not in the same way as justice.
It could reflect a teaching in Pirkei Avos that the world stands on three legs; justice, truth, and peace. Justice is one of the most important things, so that could be why God loves it; but there’s no reference to God’s love of truth and peace in the Amida.
This is an attachment of value to righteousness and justice in tandem – צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.
God doesn’t operate our universe from a lens of strict justice, nor a lens of mercy and kindness – דין / חסד. A universe of strict justice would have no tolerance for mistakes . Everyone who isn’t yet perfect – meaning everyone who ever lived – would get cancer or struck by lightning. It would be a dysfunctional universe, a dead universe that could never grow or tolerate the wild freedom of life.
A universe of pure kindness and generosity would not be functional either – you’re supposed to give a child everything they need, sure, but if you’re thirty and your parents still dress you and feed you and read you stories, we understand that something terrible has happened. There comes a time to individuate; a time to set boundaries and establish yourself as an independent human with a distinct existence and identity. In a universe where God opens unlimited spigots, we would lose ourselves and drown with no conceivable sense of independence; that universe too would not grow or tolerate the wild freedom of life.
So of necessity, our universe’s characteristics of justice and generosity temper each other and coexist in equilibrium, and God loves that – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.
We need judgment and justice, and we need God’s kindness. Only with both can we have the space to do anything or earn God’s blessings and rewards. Outside of the season between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, this is the only blessing of the entire year that concludes with God as the King, because it is about justice and generosity, no less than exactly what enables God to be king of anything – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.
Coexisting, not cancelling
While justice and generosity both exist, they don’t cancel each other out. The Torah demands that we judge justly and forbids showing a bias in favor of the poor or weak in law – לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong.
But when King David would rule against a poor person if that’s what justice required, he’d call them back to offer some aid and support because that’s what generosity required of him – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.
God loves both. In the moments we experience justice, God also sends a measure of generosity to tolerate the justice. It would be impossible and unfair for the two to never balance out eventually; and hopefully, we are lucky enough for the generosity to come first. Our sages teach that God delivers the cure before the sickness; but that can be hard to see in the moment, so we ask for generosity before justice – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.
It’s ubiquitous in our stories, but not always in our lives.
Moshe grows up in as Paroah’s step-grandson; when he receives his mission, he is well placed to take it because everyone knows him and he understands them. Yosef is sold into slavery and climb his way up the social circles of Egyptian aristocracy; when his family reappear in their time of need, he is uniquely situated to save them. Esther was queen for a while before Haman showed and caused trouble; she is well placed from the beginning, the cure before the sickness, but can we doubt that she cried to herself every night until it all made sense?
But it’s not always linear.
The Jews were evicted from Spain 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, arguably the greatest haven for Jewish life since biblical times; we know that, but those Jews did not. The Holocaust is the worst calamity to befall the Jewish People in millennia, but the State of Israel was born out of the ashes; the cure came at enormous cost and far too late for the millions who were lost. Who is to say what the cure is? It’s not obvious, and that certainly doesn’t justify the pain; but perhaps it helps us make a little sense of it.
We don’t believe in the Mother Teresa-esque sanctification of pain for its own sake, and we don’t always get the eureka moment where everything fits together into a cohesive narrative with a great reason for everything that ever happened to you. But there is something for us to look for, a challenge to seek out meaning in our experiences.
God loves justice and generosity, and we ought to cultivate the temperament too. As the great Viktor Frankl wrote, what helps give us the strength to withstand anything is meaning and purpose.
The combination of justice and generosity are what help us live and grow in the long term, the purpose of creation. The universe is big and complex, but we understand that when you need to punish a child, you also need to explain why they’re getting punished so it doesn’t feel gratuitously cruel and they will know better next time.