“Zion will be redeemed by justice (mishpat), her repentant ones by righteousness (ẓedaka).”
Isaiah rebuked Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) for their evil deeds, lack of morality and for the fact that they did not seek God. Isaiah prophesied that God will punish those who acted contrary to His will, but also foresaw that Am Yisrael will repent and be worthy of redemption.
Questions on the Posuk (Verse)
- To whom or to what does the verse refer with the words “Zion” and “her repentant ones?” Does it refer to places or to people?
- What is the verse’s intention in using the words “justice” and “righteousness?” What is the meaning of these words in the context of our verse?
We shall offer two answers to these questions, based upon insights of our classical commentators.
Mishpat: Mitzvot Between Man and Fellow-man; Ẓedaka Mitzvot Between Man and God
Malbim (1809 – 1879) defines the terms and explains that mishpat refers to mitzvot between man and fellow-man, while ẓedaka concerns mitzvot between man and God. “Zion” refers to Jerusalem, the center of the monarchy and to the nation which dwells in Jerusalem. “Her repentant ones” refers to those who were exiled from Eretz Yisrael.
Based upon his definitions, Malbim explains that Isaiah rebuked both Jerusalem and those who were exiled from her, each in accordance with its sin, noting that the sins caused the exile and therefore, redemption will result from repentance. Jerusalem’s sins were in the realm of mitzvot between man and fellow-man, mishpat, the basic social compact of society. Therefore, the prophet declared “Zion will be redeemed by mishpat, Jerusalem will be redeemed through rectification and repentance of interpersonal sins. The nature of the sins among the exiles was between man and God; they failed to seek God and did not fulfill His mitzvot. Therefore, “her repentant ones” will be redeemed through ẓedak, through rectification of its sins against God.
Meshech Ḥochma (Rabbi Meir Simḥa of Dvinsk, 1843 – 1926) explains that Isaiah’s rebuke of those in Jerusalem is essentially geared towards Klal Yisrael, while that of the exiles is intended for individuals. For the collective (klal) it will always be more difficult to rectify interpersonal sins. Maintaining public peace and order is one of any society’s greatest challenges. For the individual, the situation is opposite; it is easier to rectify mitzvot between man and fellow-man, while the greater challenge is in the realm of mitzvot between man and God. For this reason, Isaiah demanded of each to achieve appropriate rectification – “Zion,” the collective Israel will be redeemed through mishpat, interpersonal mitzvot; “her repentant ones,” individuals, will be redeemed through ẓedaka, mitzvot between man and God. Each will be redeemed via the rectification which is more difficult for it.
In our generation, in which we are privileged to experience the beginning of the redemption, we must improve as much as possible in interpersonal mitzvot, since this is the rectification required in our personal lives, and in this merit we shall be redeemed. In our public life, in order to contribute to the collective, we must aspire to achieve the highest possible of integrity and social harmony – this is our greater challenge.
Zion will be Redeemed Through Mishpat, but Her Repentant Ones Through Ẓedaka
The Gaon of Vilna offers his own elucidation of the posuk from Isaiah: “Zion,” the city of Jerusalem, deserves to be redeemed by the measure of law (mishpat), since “She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” [Isaiah 40:2]. Having been severely punished, Zion is worthy of redemption by the strict measure of justice. “Her repentant ones,” Am Yisrael will be redeemed through ẓedaka, through God’s grace, rather than through the measure of justice.
The Gaon explains his comment based upon the Talmudic statement [Jerusalem Talmud, Makkot 2:6]:
Prophecy was asked: “What is the punishment of the sinner?” and answered: “The soul which sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4] God was asked “What is the punishment of the sinner?” He answered: “Let him repent and he will be forgiven.”
While the strict measure of law does not allow for repentance, God grants this option to Am Yisrael in order to redeem them. God’s will is to redeem His nation from their exile as a matter of mercy and grace, even if they are not worthy based upon the strict measure of justice. The Divine will is for Israel to repent its sins, but God will go beyond the strict measure of justice out of His love for His nation Am Yisrael and His desire to redeem them.
In our generation, the generation of redemption, we must be aware that God redeems us through not only through the strict measure of justice, but also through ẓedaka. Clearly, God wishes us to repent our sins, but we must not be discouraged by feeling there is so much to rectify. God’s will is to redeem us, and towards this end, He will not apply only the measure of justice. We must rectify our sins to our maximum ability, and return to God, and then He will assist us and bring the complete redemption.
We presented two explanations of the posuk in Isaiah “Zion will be redeemed by justice, her repentant ones by righteousness.” Malbim explains that the collective will be redeemed in the merit of interpersonal mitzvot, and individuals through mitzvot between ma, and God. Meshech Ḥochma adds that each must rectify the realm which is most challenging and most difficult for him/them. Therefore, on the individual level, our generation must focus on mitzvot between man and God, while in the public domain the focus must be on interpersonal mitzvot.
The Gaon of Vilna presented an alternate understanding of the verse. Jerusalem herself, having paid the full price of her sins, will be redeemed through the measure of justice. Am Yisrael which dwells within Jerusalem will not be redeemed through the measure of justice, but through God’s ẓedaka and grace. We must therefore be diligent in repentance and cognizant of the fact that God’s will is to redeem us. We need not judge our own worthiness of redemption, since God does not so judge us. God’s will is that we repent and then He will redeem us.
May we merit complete repentance and thereby the completion redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.