God’s Justice: Weights and Measures

Rabbi Bernie Fox


I.  Considering the unfathomable

We have a very limited understanding of how God judges an individual, a community, or the world.  We know righteousness is rewarded and wickedness is punished.  But we do not know how God assesses righteousness or wickedness.  Neither do we know precisely how He rewards or punishes.  The Torah and our Sages provide some insights and observations.  However, we would be foolish to assume that we completely understand these passages.  We are not provided with a clear formula that we can apply to understand the fates of individuals, nations, or the world. 

We have many questions concerning God’s judgments.  For example, we are befuddled and disturbed by the suffering of the righteous or innocent and the apparent bliss and outward success of the blatantly wicked. Many Sages and learned scholars have suggested explanations. No explanation or combination of explanations can completely penetrate the barrier that separates us from the All-Knowing, and All-Wise.  The depth of the mystery far exceeds the satisfaction provided by the explanations.   

 When we consider the comments of the Sages concerning God’s judgment, we must concede that our understanding of these insights is superficial.  If some of their comments seem simplistic or inconsistent with our observations, we must allow for our limited grasp of their meaning.  

The discussion that follows is not intended to explain God’s ways.  Its objective is to consider comments of two great Sages and to glean from them an insight into the relationship between the individual and the group. 


And God said, “The cry of Sedom and Amorah because it is great and their sin because it is very heavy”  (Gen 18:20).


II.  God judges communities and the world

God reveals to Abraham that he will judge Sedom and its surrounding communities.  If the judgment confirms the wickedness of these communities, He will destroy them entirely.[1]  Maimonides cites this passage in his Laws of Repentance:


A person whose sins are more numerous than his merits immediately dies in his wickedness…  Also, a community whose sins are greater [than its merits] is immediately destroyed, as it says, “The cry of Sedom and Amorah because it is great.” Also, the entire world, if their sins are greater [than their merits], they are immediately destroyed, as it says, “For great is the wickedness of humanity in the land”  (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws if Teshuvah 3:2).


According to Maimonides, in the above passage, God reveals to Abraham that He has weighed the merits and sins of Sedom and its neighboring communities.  Their sins exceeded their merits.[2] 


Maimonides explains that his discussion of God’s assessment of one’s righteousness or wickedness should influence one’s behavior.  He cites and interprets a comment of the Talmud:[3]


Therefore, the entire year a person should see oneself as if one is half innocent and half guilty.  Also, [one should regard] the entire world as half innocent and half guilty.  [If] one commits a single sin, one tips oneself and tips the entire world toward guilt and causes its destruction.  [If] one performs a single mitzvah, one tips oneself and tips the entire world toward innocence and causes its salvation and rescue  (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).


Rabbaynu Nissim – Ran –  interprets the comment of the Talmud[4] slightly differently:


The entire world may be evenly balanced – half [of the people] are innocent and half [of the people] are guilty[5].  And its actions are equally balanced.  One performs a single commandment, it occurs that one’s merits exceed [one’s sins]; it occurs that one is an innocent individual; it occurs that through him the balance of the entire world is tipped to be [composed of] more innocent [than guilty] individuals (Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven, (Ran) Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 3a).


III.  Judging a community – two views

Let us carefully compare the positions of Ran to Maimonides.  Maimonides explains that God judges the community and the world based upon its collective actions.  Here, some oversimplified imagery is helpful.  It should not be understood literally.  On one side of a scale, He places all the “merits” of the community.  On the other side of the scale, He places all its sins.  The judgment of the community is determined by the side of the scale that is heavier.  If the merits outweigh the sins, the community is preserved.  If the sins outweigh the merits, the community is destroyed.  

 Ran explains that the community’s “members” [not merits] are collected and placed upon the scales.  The innocent members are placed on one side of the scale and the guilty upon the other.  If the combined innocent members outweigh the guilty members of the community, it is preserved.  If the guilty members outweigh the innocent ones, then it is destroyed.  Ran and Maimonides have different views of what God measures or assesses.  According to Maimonides, God’s judgment of the community is based upon its collective “actions.”  According to Ran, God tallies the innocent and guilty “individuals.” 


IV.  The judgment of Sedom

These views can lead to very different outcomes.  Let us consider the communities of Sedom. God performed His calculations and judged Sedom and its communities to be guilty.  What did God discover when He judged these communities?  According to Maimonides, He discovered that iniquity outweighed righteousness.  This does not mean that these communities were destroyed because their guilty members outnumbered the innocent ones.  The same guilty judgment could have emerged even if the innocent members outnumbered the guilty ones.  Imagine a community in which the merits of the innocent only marginally exceed their sins.  The sins of the guilty far exceed their merits.  There may be more innocent than guilty individuals in this community.  Nonetheless, the aggregated sins of the community exceed its merits.  According to Maimonides, this community will be destroyed.[6] 


According to Ran, Sedom and its communities were destroyed because the guilty members of these communities outnumbered the innocent members.  It is conceivable that the combined merits exceeded the aggregated sins of the communities.  If the sins of the guilty only marginally outweighed their merits but the merits of the righteous far exceeded their sins, then the collected merits could outweigh the combined sins.  Still, the communities would be destroyed.[7] 


V.  The individual and community

In short, according to Maimonides, a community is judged based upon the aggregated sins and merits of its members.  According to Ran, God’s judgment is based upon its individuals – the sums of its innocent members and guilty members.  How can we understand this dispute?  What does it reveal?  

Before considering the meaning of this dispute, let us remind ourselves that the purpose of this discussion is not to uncover a principle that God uses in judging communities.  The objective is to discover what the interpretations of two great Sages – Maimonides and Ran – reveal about their perspectives.

 Ran explains that a community is judged based upon its individuals.  What is the integrity, the righteousness, the virtue of the community’s members?  A functional community produces and sustains righteous members who have personal integrity, and live virtuous lives.  A failed community does not produce and sustain such members.  The sole purpose of the community is to advance the spiritual and ethical development of its members. 

Maimonides views the community as an organic entity.  Each of us is an individual, a member of a community, a nation, and worldwide humanity.  Each of these is itself significant.  The individual is judged by one’s virtue.  In the same manner, a community is judged by its virtue.  In a worthy community, the aggregated merits of a community must exceed its sins.  


VI.  Creating a functional and worthy community

Both perspectives are important.  Ran demands that we build and maintain communities that support and develop righteous individuals.  We must heal the sick, care for the poor, and have compassion for the downtrodden. But we must also provide our children with Torah education, sustain and support Torah observance and learning, and encourage observance and virtue.  A functional community is one that advances the development of righteous individuals. 

 We must each strive to live a righteous life.  According to Maimonides, we must also create a righteous community.  What are the values of the community as a collective?  For what does the community stand?  How does the community implement these values?  A worthy community must strive for and practice virtue. 

[1] Unkelus explains that the people will be given a final opportunity to repent.  If they repent, the communities will be spared.   If they do not, they will be destroyed.  It seems that the people were tested by the three visitors who came to Sedom and were taken by Lote into his home.  The people surrounded the house and demanded that Lote hand over his guests.  Their announced intention was to abuse the guests.  No one in Sedom opposed this outrage.  Lote refused to abandon his guests.  The people of Sedom attempted to break into his home and take them.  A wonder occurred and the mob was stricken with blindness.  Still, the would-be abusers searched for the door.  

[2] Maimonides points out that God considers more than the number of sins and merits.  He also considers the significance of the specific sins and merits.  A single sin may be more significant and be assigned more “weight” than numerous less significant merits.  A single merit may be more “weighty” than numerous minor sins. (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:2)

[3] Mesechet Kidushin 40b.

[4] The actual text of the Talmud is as follows: Ribbi Elazar the son of Ribbi Shimon said:  Because the world is judged based upon its majority and the individual is judged based on one’s majority.  One performs a single mitzvah, [let one be] overjoyed, for one has tipped one’s balance and the balance of the entire world toward innocence.  One commits a single sin, woe [to him or her], for one has tipped one’s balance and the balance of the entire world toward guilt…

[5] In his comments Ran uses the terms צדיק and רשע.  These terms are generally tRanslated as righteous and wicked.  However, Ran suggests that in this context these terms should be understood to mean innocent and guilty. (ר"ן ראש השנה דף ב:ב בדפי הרי"אף, ד"ה צדיקים גמורים)

[6] This does not mean that the guilty people of Sedom and its communities did not exceed the innocent people.  It is clear from the Torah that there were virtually no innocent people in these communities.  However, these communities were destroyed because their combined sins exceeded their merits and not because of the number of guilty exceeded the number of innocent members. 

[7] Of course, this was not the case.  There were virtually no innocent people in these communities.  Also, the Torah and its commentaries explain that the few innocents – Lote and his family – were barely innocent.