The Sheikh Jarrah dispute through the lens of Jewish values - opinion

Implementing justice feels so right when a wrong is being corrected and or is being punished.

RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party head Bezalel Smotrich and party members visit the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Monday. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party head Bezalel Smotrich and party members visit the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Monday.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 The Zionist endeavor is the reclaiming and the rediscovery by the Jewish people of Jewish national power. That is to say, a power guided by Jewish values. The ongoing events in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem is an example of how to use that power infused with Jewish values. 
In the decades before 1948, Jewish families lived in the neighborhood on land they had legally purchased from Arab owners. After the War of Independence, the Jordanian government, with the backing of the UN, took over the property. Some Palestinian refugees were settled there in exchange for giving up their refugee status. Now Jewish settlers have gone to the Israeli court system to have the land and homes returned to Jews, which would force the Palestinian families who have lived there since the 1950s to be evicted.
It has been argued there is a clear legal case that the property should be returned to Jewish ownership. Upholding justice is one of the hallmarks of any democracy and legal system. It is also one of the most important Jewish values. We are commanded, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) To aid us in how to implement that principle we find the following conversation in the Talmud.
“The Gemara asks, ‘What does God pray?’
Rav Zutra bar Tovia said that Rav said, ‘God says, “May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger toward transgressions, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes through which there is punishment, and may I conduct myself toward My children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law.” (Brachot 7a)
Implementing justice feels so right when a wrong is being corrected and or is being punished. That is human nature, and justice is the cornerstone for all societies. And yet this midrash comes along to remind us that justice is a means to a whole society. It is not always the ends in and of itself. If the moral compass of the Jewish state is one that points us to Jewish values, this is a lesson that should be well listened to at this moment. This is not an easy thing to do and so the tradition reiterates this guidance and teaching by connecting it to the very creation of the world.
“THESE ARE the generations of the heavens and of the Earth when they were created, in the day that YHVH ELoHYM made the Earth and the heavens. [Why does the creation begin with the Divine name ELoHYM as the creator and end with two names, YHVH ELoHYM when concluding the creation story? The Midrash explains:] This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. The King wondered, ‘If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if, however, I pour cold water, they will contract [and shatter].’ What then did the king do? He poured in a mixture of hot and cold water so the glasses would remain whole. ‘So,’ said the Holy One, ‘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!’ That is why the Name YHVH is added to the Name ELoHYM.” (Midrash Rabbah 12:15)
This midrash is not a call for some kumbaya world of only mercy. It reminds us that justice is also essential for humanity, but the message is clear that justice needs to be tempered with mercy. The present situation in Sheikh Jarrah makes a strong case for that so the Palestinian families can remain in their homes. That should be done, even though for many Israelis and Jews around the world that will be difficult and painful. It is the correct decision in this case because it will be a decision based on the deepest Jewish values discussed above.
This is such an important and ubiquitous a Jewish value that even in last week’s Torah portion Rabbi Ellie Munk comments, “The harmonious balance between the terms afh and gam signifies that in God’s reprimands, God wants to temper justice with mercy.” (Leviticus 26:44)
Sheikh Jarrah was also the location in April 1948 of the Hadassah Hospital medical convoy massacre, which was a revenge attack for what had taken place in Deir Yassin a few days earlier. As with then, we see this week that it is very easy for events to spiral out of control with violent and deadly consequences for Israelis and Palestinians.
Finally, the fight over Sheikh Jarrah is also because the tomb of Simeon the Just is located in that neighborhood. Let us not forget what he said: “The world exists through three things: the law, service [Temple sacrifice, and today prayer], and acts of loving kindness.” (Avot 1:2) 
It is not without accident that acts of gmilut hasadim/deeds of loving kindness get the last word from him to emphasize its guiding light to show us how to live a true and full Jewish national and individual life, even if not always the easy thing to do.
The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.