When my older kids were little, I remember how they would get under each other’s skins—in the ways that siblings are uniquely capable of doing. One knew exactly what word to say or what toy to take to provoke the other. They knew what buttons to push to drive each other nuts. And I remember counseling my oldest child, “You need to not let him do that to you. By reacting to his provocations, you’re letting him have power over you.” Alas, such a lesson is easier taught than learned—as I can attest to from personal experience.
At the heart of this lesson, it seems to me, is the principle referred to by the rabbis of the Talmud as lifnim meshurat hadin. While often rendered as “beyond the letter of the law,” a more accurate translation might actually be, “Within the limits of the law.” Lifnim meshurat hadin is deployed by the Talmud to describe cases when the Sages, the masters of Jewish law, stop short of deploying the full measure of their power and don’t prescribe the entirety of what the law would entitle in the situation.
One case the Talmud mentions (Bava Metzia 30b) has to do with a sage, Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi. By the time of this story, Rabbi Yishmael was an elderly man. As he was walking along the road, he encountered another man who was carrying a load of wood and had set it down to take a rest. The man asked Rabbi Yishmael to help him by lifting up the wood and putting it on his back. Rather than do so, Rabbi Yishmael asked how much the wood cost. The man told him the amount and Rabbi Yishmael paid him. Rabbi Yishmael then declared the wood ownerless (and presumably started to leave the scene) when the man took the ownerless wood and again asked Rabbi Yishamel to help him load it on his back. Rabbi Yishamel again paid the man the value of the wood.
The Talmud asks why all this happened. Why didn’t Rabbi Yishamel help the man load the wood? Because he was elderly and either couldn’t do so or felt it was beneath his dignity. So why not just tell the man that? Why go through the motions (and expense) of paying him not once, but twice? First, because it’s a mitzvah to help someone with their burden. But also because Rabbi Yishamel was acting lifnim meshurat hadin: Though the law would allow him to simply say, “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” and proceed on his way, Rabbi Yishmael chose a path that added a greater measure of dignity to the man carrying the burden—he gave him money which, presumably, allowed him to continue on his journey at no loss. (Though it’s worth noting that the man seemed to want to continue with his task—even after being paid twice. Perhaps he sought the dignity of work. Or perhaps he was taking advantage of Rabbi Yishmael’s kindness.)
By my reckoning, lifnim meshurat hadin is the essence of wisdom. No matter our station in life, we are all images of the Divine, which means we are all endowed with power. Some of us may have more or less formal power, through physical strength or threat of violence or by dint of law (which is, to paraphrase Clausewitz, violence by other means), but all of us possess power in some measure. A mundane example: The other day a fly was buzzing around me. What should I do: Swat it? Trap it? Open a window? I might feel entitled to smack it, but the wiser, less violent choice is opening the window and letting it go. Or a grander example: How should a political majority treat a minority? Should it force through its preferred legislation, even at great cost to society, or should it act lifnim meshurat hadin, and seek compromise despite the power the law formally grants it?
That last line, of course, alludes to the events of this week in Israel. What has bothered so many of the government’s own allies is not disagreement with the bill it passed, but the way it went about doing so. No less a figure than Natan Sharansky, who served as a minister in Likud-led governments, told the Times, “I really believe that [the reasonableness bill] was something which could be useful, but the way it was presented and how it was pushed ahead made it almost impossible.” Rather than heed the calls of Sharansky or President Herzog or President Biden, who all counseled a lifnim meshurat hadin approach and finding a compromise position, the government plowed ahead. The results (as of this writing) have included protesters shutting down key highways and the entrance to the Knesset, police riding on horseback and spraying water cannons at them, and fears of much worse violence to come.
The fact that all of this is happening in the week of Tisha b’Av heightens the sense that something is deeply broken. A few lines after the story about Rabbi Yishmael, the Talmud concludes its discussion of lifnim meshurat hadin by quoting a later sage, Rabbi Yochanan, who said, “Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases on the basis of Torah law in the city.” The Talmud asks: But what else should they have done? Should decisions have been made arbitrarily, responding to the whims of the moment? The Talmud explains: The error of the ancient Jerusalemites was that they established their rulings on the basis of the Torah law—and did not make the wiser choice of operating well inside the limits of what the law allowed. Their failure to do so led to the divisions that weakened Jewish society and made possible the loss of the Jewish commonwealth.
Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that democracy in America required of its citizens certain “habits of the heart,” a term not so far from the avodah shebalev, or sacred service of the heart, which the Talmud uses to describe prayer. Our prayer lives, and our other spiritual practices, are meant to help us regulate the many forces that operate within us: our ability to feel shame, envy, lust; our capacities for kindness, empathy, altruism. Because we are created in the Divine image, we know that all of these capacities emanate from the Creator. Tisha b’Av is a day on which our tradition imagines that the Holy One’s own capacity for self-regulation was overwhelmed, that the Ineffable’s impulse to din, strict judgment, overran Its capacity for hesed, the loving connection that balances and softens judgment. That is to say, on Tisha b’Av, God failed to act lifnim meshurat hadin, and instead went the distance of what the law allowed. The consequences, of course, were as catastrophic as they were painful.
Yet the truly amazing thing about Tisha b’Av and the history that unfolds from it is that we don’t stay in that place of desolation, easy as it would be to do so. By all rights, Judaism should have perished with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet it adapted and kept going—for centuries and millennia. Somehow, we learned to recover and renew the loving connection of hesed. This shows up right away, in the Shabbat that immediately follows Tisha b’Av: Shabbat Nachamu, the first of seven weeks of consolation as we move towards Rosh Hashanah. This period opens up the gates of teshuva. It is a time of introspection, soul-searching, accountability, apology, and, where possible, forgiveness and reconciliation. (Program note: I hope you’ll sign up for IJS’s Shofar Project to help you do this work.)
Jewish spiritual practice, like mindfulness practice, is grounded in the reality that teshuva is always possible, that what has been is not what must be. Even at moments when we are justifiably prone to narratives of catastrophe—perhaps especially at such moments—the tradition invites and even demands of us to awaken our capacity for loving connection, to acknowledge when we have used our power unwisely, to correct our mistakes, and to start again.
Like it was with my kids, that’s all easier said than done. But if we can open our hearts to it, the Torah offers us a path to follow—so much so that the tradition asserts that it is on Tisha b’Av, our lowest and saddest day of the year, that the Messiah is born. May this Tisha b’Av open us all to the path of wise and mindful action, the path of reconciliation, the path of redemption.