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Kee Tisah 5760-2000

“The ‘Vengeful’ G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the parasha, Parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.

In preparation for the Revelation, Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights to study Torah with the Almighty. But, because of a miscalculation regarding the date of Moses’ return, the People of Israel thought that Moses had abandoned them, and demanded that Aaron produce a new leader. Aaron tried to delay them, but eventually the Golden Calf is created. The crazed people cry out to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) “Ay’leh Eh’lo’hecha Yis’rael,” This is your G-d, O’ Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!

G-d is furious at the people’s actions and tells Moses to descend from the mountain, saying that the people that he (Moses) has brought up from Egypt have become corrupt. G-d, in anger, denounces the people, saying in Exodus 32:9, “Rah’iti et ha’am ha’zeh, v’hinei am k’shey oref hu,” I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. And now Moses, says G-d, desist from Me, let My anger flare against them, and I will annihilate them, and shall make of you (Moses) a great nation.

Moses pleads to G-d that the destruction of Israel will be seen by the other nations as G-d’s lack of omnipotence. G-d, so to speak, reconsiders, and Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets of testimony in his hands. When Moses sees the people dancing around the Gold Calf, his own anger flares. He throws the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19).

Moses then calls out (Exodus 32:26): Whosoever is for G-d join me. All the Levites gather around him, and wreak vengeance on those who had led the rebellion of the Golden Calf. Three thousand men of Israel fall that day at the hands of the Levites. Moses pleads to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, but G-d strikes the people with a plague.

Moses spends the next forty days praying that G-d restore Israel to its previous state of eminence. The second set of tablets are delivered to the Jewish people. G-d reveals His thirteen attributes of mercy, and so the story ends.

Although we have not yet completed the reading of the Book of Exodus (the second of the Five Books of Moses), one could already get the impression that the G-d of Israel is a vengeful G-d. This is the G-d who destroys the world by means of a Flood; the G-d who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son; the G-d who enslaves the Jewish people in Egypt; the G-d who kills Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, at the investiture of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle; the G-d who swallows up Korach and 250 of his men as the earth opens; the G-d who decrees that the Jewish people will never be allowed to enter the Land of Israel because of the sin of the spies; the G-d who says to Moses that he will never enter the Land of Israel because he hit the rock, rather than speak to the rock. The seemingly unending anger and acts of retribution are perhaps why the nations of the world refer to the G-d of the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called “Old Testament” G-d, as the G-d of Vengeance, while the G-d of the Christian Bible is often called the god of love or the god of mercy.

The Torah in Leviticus 19:18 clearly forbids vengeance. “Lo tikom, v’lo titor et b’nei ameh’cha,” You shall not wreak vengeance nor bear a grudge toward the people of your nation. The Talmud, in Yoma 23a, defines vengeance, citing the following example: If one farmer asks to borrow a hoe from a second farmer and is refused, that first farmer is not permitted to refuse the use of a spade to the farmer who was unkind to him. In Leviticus 19, however, the Torah goes further. Do not bare a grudge, explains the Talmud–one is not even permitted to say to that farmer who was unkind yesterday: “I’m not like you, I’m not a low-life. Here, take my spade and use it in good health!” And yet, our G-d seems to be a vengeful and grudge-bearing G-d. How could that be?

Of course, there is a profound difference between people being unnecessarily vengeful, and a G-d who demands accountability. One cannot equate a valid and deserving punishment meted out to a wicked person with vengeance against an arrogant or mean neighbor.

As the story of the Golden Calf concludes, a second set of tablets are carved out. In Exodus 34:4, Moses rises early in the morning and ascends Mount Sinai. G-d descends in a cloud and stands with Moses. Moses calls out the name of G-d as G-d proclaims: “Hashem, Hashem, G-d, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for Thousands of Generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses but does not Cleanse Completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” These so-called 13 attributes of G-d’s mercy represent the ultimate level of forgiveness. By invoking the 13 attributes, G-d gives the Jewish people a second chance.

Let’s look at this again! There is an inconsistency, a blatant inconsistency in the thirteen attributes!! Exodus 34:7 reads “V’nakay lo y’nakeh, po’hkead avon avot,” telling us that G-d does not entirely cleanse. In fact, He recalls the iniquity of the parents on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations!

The brother of the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz, the great Jewish sage who led the religious community in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, was asked a question: If we are supposed to cling to G-d, “V’da’vakta b’id’ra’chav,” if we are supposed to imitate G-d, then perhaps we, humans, should be vengeful, since we see that the last of G-d’s 13 attributes of mercy is vengeance and not cleansing completely? He answered: If a human being’s act of vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps that person is truly entitled to be vengeful as well.

In real life there is vengeance that is entirely legitimate. In fact, sometimes legitimate vengeance is not cruel at all, but may actually be a reflection of mercy. There comes a time when people in authority need to say, “Enough is enough!” G-d also says: “Enough is enough, this cannot continue, this must stop!” And by stopping the undesirable actions, we perform an act of mercy, not vengeance. Stopping a cruel and wicked person certainly is an act of mercy for the victims. It may even be an act of mercy for the cruel and wicked person himself.

Let’s face it, Judaism’s goals are radically different from the conventional world. Judaism sees the world differently and values the world differently. Our G-d, the G-d of the Hebrews, is surely a G-d of love, but also a G-d of accountability. In the Jewish religion, one doesn’t just walk away from one’s misdeed. People are held accountable, responsible, and expected to mend their ways when they err; and if they don’t, there’s a price to be paid by us all for improper actions.

Yes, our G-d holds us to a strict account, but by holding us to a strict account, He performs for us an act of mercy. As a result, we become better, stronger, more knowledgeable and even more merciful people, especially when we ultimately see the toll that sinfulness exacts on us.

Yes, as the brother of the Chazon Ish said: If vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps vengeance is indeed justified!

May you be blessed.