By now we are all familiar with the story of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the Mesa mom who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 14, and who was recently deported in an initiative to enforce the strictest standard of law.
In 2008, she was convicted for using a false social security number to gain employment. Our tradition has the deepest respect for the law, as we read in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”
There is no doubt that she did something illegal. Yet, as we shall see, our tradition also suggests that sometimes the path of justice must detour around the law in the direction of kindness. Sadly, she had no legal path to citizenship and no way to earn a livelihood in order to support her family.
The Talmud relates the story of Rabbah bar Chana, who hired porters to move a barrel of wine. In the process, the porters broke the barrel, and Rabbah bar Chana seized their cloaks as compensation for his loss. The porters complained to Rav, who ruled that Rabbah bar Chana had to return the cloaks. He asked, “Is that the law?” Clearly, Rabbah was within his legal rights to NOT pay the workers and to keep their garments in order to cover the cost of the wine. Rav responded that it was the law that he return the cloaks, based on the text in Proverbs (2:20), “Walk on the path of the good.” After their garments were returned, the porters complained that, as poor men, they were hungry and needed their wages for the day in order to buy food. Rav ordered Rabbah to pay them. Again, Rabbah questioned, “Is that the law?” Yes, as the verse concludes, “Keep to the paths of the just.”
This ruling is based on a principle known as, “lifnim m’shurat ha-din,” beyond the letter of the law. Paradoxically, the tradition suggests that the requirement of the law is sometimes to ignore the law and err on the side of kindness. My heart aches for Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and I can’t help but wonder how Rav would have ruled in her case?
Nachmanides comments on Deuteronomy 6:18, where we read, “Do the right and good thing in the eyes of God.” The rabbis cannot adjudicate every possible situation in which we find ourselves. So they direct us to a guiding principle.
“God,” writes Ramban, “desires that which is good and right. This refers to compromise, finding more leniently than the strict letter of the law.” It is tempting to rationalize our behavior and to assess our own standards and our own desires as the good and the right. Finding the balance between justice and kindness is a challenging paradox. While respecting the law, we honor the principle of compassion.
The law, for example, requires that mamzerim, children born of forbidden relationships, should never be allowed to marry into the community. The midrash boldly counters that anyone who would enforce such a law is oppressive. Aren’t we a society of laws? Won’t there be chaos if laws are not respected and enforced? Yes. And no.
The Talmud teaches that Jews are, “Compassionate ones, the children of the compassionate,” going so far as to suggest that if we see a Jew who does not act with rachamim, with mercy, that we should suspect that person’s lineage!
This is a dramatic statement and a dramatic argument for compassion lifnim m’shurat ha-din, above and beyond the letter of the law. I am haunted by Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos. Would that our judicial system had been informed by the Jewish value of erring on the side of mercy.
We need both justice and mercy. The midrash suggests that God contemplated the role of each quality in creating the world, and compares this to pouring water into clay vessels. If we pour either hot or cold water exclusively, the vessels will shatter. With a mixture of the two, the vessel will survive.
Thus, God is depicted as saying, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist? I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to stand!”
May we be blessed with deeply felt connections to both justice and kindness, and the wisdom to know when to apply each one.