Tzedakah/Tze’akah

One of the hard things about being a parent or a teacher is when your children or students fall short of their potential. You can give them guidance, you can help them find opportunities, and you can provide encouragement and support. But the decision of whether to follow that guidance, take advantage of those opportunities, and respond favorably to your encouragement rests with them. You have no control in the end over their decisions.

It is that feeling of helplessness that Isaiah conveys in his parable of the vineyard. It might seem strange for the Lord of the vineyard, who represents the all-powerful God of the universe, to feel helpless or discouraged, but that is exactly how Isaiah characterizes Him. He has given us our agency, He gives us every opportunity to make good choices, and He feels pain when we fall short, or worse, when we rebel.

“What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” He asks, “wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:4, 2 Nephi 15:4). This question is almost identical to the one asked by the Lord of the vineyard in Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree: “What could I have done more in my vineyard?” he asks repeatedly. (See Jacob 5:41, 47, 49.) In both stories, this question conveys a sense of despair, and in both cases, the Lord of the vineyard threatens to destroy everything. In Zenos’s allegory (which is much longer than Isaiah’s), a servant intervenes, saying, “Spare it a little longer” (Jacob 5:50), and the Lord of the vineyard agrees. But in Isaiah’s version, we only see the moment of frustration, the agony of a God who wanted only the best for His children and who is horrified at the choices they are making.

His sorrow is summarized in the final sentence, which contains two plays on words that are entirely lost in translation. He tells us that the vineyard in the parable represents Israel, that we are God’s “pleasant plant” (or “plant of His delight”). He then contrasts His hopes for His children with the outcomes He is seeing so far:

He looked for judgment [mishpat], but behold oppression [mishpah];

for righteousness [tsedakah], but behold a cry [tse’akah].

Isaiah 5:7, 2 Nephi 15:7

The Hebrew words mishpat (מִשְׁפָט) and tsedakah (צְדָקָה) are rich with meaning. Both refer to a form of justice. But where mishpat refers to legal justice or social justice—making sure that everyone is treated fairly—tsedakah refers to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “distributive justice,” meaning that we willingly perform acts of charity and kindness to address the inequities in the world. (See “Tzedakah: The Untranslatable Virtue” on rabbisacks.org.)

So the Lord of the vineyard was hoping His children would act with both fairness and kindness. Instead, He found oppression (mishpah) and cries for help (tse’akah). Here’s a less literal translation of that sentence which illustrates the wordplay in the original Hebrew:

He looked for civility, but found only severity;

He looked for mercy, but found only misery.

God shared a similar sense of anguish with Enoch as He described the brutality in the world leading up to the Flood. (See Moses 7:29-40.) He feels pain when we make wrong decisions, particularly when we use our agency to hurt each other. As the perfect parent, He will continue to provide patient instruction and leadership, but He is not disconnected from us and unaffected by our choices. Because He loves us, He mourns when we make decisions that cause pain to ourselves or to others.

Today, I will remember that God is invested in my happiness. He rejoices in my growth and development, and He sorrows when I fall short. I will strive to make wise decisions and to be diligent because of my love for Him.

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