“The ‘Vengeful’ G-d”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tisah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s 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 Al-mighty. But, because of a miscalculation regarding the date of Moses’ return, the People of Israel thought that Moses had abandoned them, and demanded of Aaron to make for them a new leader. Aaron tried to delay the people, but eventually the Golden Calf is created. The crazed people cry out to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל , This is your God, 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 to Moses 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, רָאִיתִי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא , “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 with G-d that the destruction of Israel will be seen by the other nations as G-d’s lack of omnipotence. G-d reconsiders, so to speak, and Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets of testimony in his hands. When Moses (Exodus 32:19) sees the people dancing joyously around the Gold Calf, his own anger flares. He throws the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.

Moses then calls out (Exodus 32:26): “Whosoever is for G-d, join me!” All the Levites gather around him and exact 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. Despite Moses’ pleas to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, 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 is delivered to the Jewish people. The story concludes when G-d reveals to Moses His “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.”

Although the reading of the Book of Exodus (the second of the Five Books of Moses) has not yet been completed, one could already conclude 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 in the times of Noah; 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 Abihu, Aaron’s sons, on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, at the investiture of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle; the G-d Who swallows up Korach and 250 of his men as the earth opens; the G-d Who decrees that an entire generation of Jews will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel because of the sin of the spies; the G-d Who refuses to allow Moses and Aaron to enter the land of Israel because Moses hit the rock, rather than speak to the rock. These seemingly unending instances of Divine anger and acts of retribution are perhaps why the nations of the world refer to the G-d of the Hebrew scriptures, the G-d of the so-called “Old Testament,” 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. לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ , You shall not wreak vengeance nor bear a grudge toward the people of your nation. The Talmud, in Yoma 23a, defines vengeance, by 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 be vengeful and refuse to lend a spade to the farmer who was unkind to him, should he ask to borrow one. Leviticus 19:18, however, goes even further, demanding, “Do not bear a grudge.” The Talmud explains that this means that one is not even permitted to say to the 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, the same G-d who prohibits vengeance and harboring a grudge, seems to be both a vengeful and grudge-bearing G-d. How could that be?

Of course, there is a profound difference between people being unnecessarily mean, 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 Divine 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,
וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת , stating clearly that G-d does not entirely cleanse the sinners. In fact, He recalls the iniquity of the parents on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations!

Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, was asked a profound question: If we are required, as the Torah in Deuteronomy 11:22 states, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו, וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ ,  to walk in all His [G-d’s] ways and cling to Him, and urged to constantly imitate G-d, then perhaps we, humans, should be vengeful as well, since 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 those in authority need to say, “Enough is enough!” Just as 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 is certainly an act of mercy for the victims. It may even be an act of mercy for those cruel and wicked people themselves.

Let’s face it, Judaism’s goals are radically different from conventional practices. 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 misdeeds. 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 all for improper actions.

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

Yes, as Meir Karelitz, 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.