Some readers of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice have noted the parallel between the heroine Portia’s speech to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and the opening of Moses’ valedictory song in Deuteronomy, which is read in synagogues tomorrow. Thus Portia opens with “The quality of mercy is not strained./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” and Moses with “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;/ Let the earth hear the words I utter!/ May my discourse come down as the rain,/ My speech distill as the dew.” But despite this biblical resonance, Kate Rozansky argues, Portia’s claims here diverge greatly from the biblical notion of mercy—at least the way Jews have understood it:
She says the “quality” of mercy is not “strained”—that is, constrained. Portia argues that your mercy should flow freely from you, like rain from the sky. If someone were forcing you to be merciful, it would sully the purity of your mercy. If I give you $100 because I owe you, I’m just doing what I have to do. If I give you 100 dollars for no reason, I’m extraordinary. Godlike, even.
When Jews entreat God’s mercy, in our sliḥot [penitential prayers], and in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we reminded God over and over and over again that God MUST be merciful to us. We remind God of the promises God has made to us over the generations. Remember the covenant. Remember that we are your people. Remember the merit of our ancestors.
God’s mercy does not flow from His infinite power or His infinite freedom, but from God’s relationship with us. God’s choice whether or not to grant mercy is constrained by His own promises. The God of the Torah is an obligated God, and the Jews owe our continued existence as a people—and perhaps the existence of the whole world, to this fact.
Portia was wrong. For Jews, the quality of mercy is constrained. Our acts of mercy are not acts of superfluity that make us extraordinary. They are obligations that force us to be our truest selves.