“The Vengeful G-d–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the grave sin of the Golden Calf, a trespass that, despite the Al-mighty’s forgiveness, has had an abiding impact on the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d.

In a gesture of Divine kindness, G-d instructs Moses (Exodus 34:1-4) to carve out two stone tablets, like the first shattered ones, and inscribe on them the same words that were on the first set. After carving out the new stone tablets, Moses arose early in the morning and ascended Mount Sinai with the tablets in his hands.

At this point, G-d descends from a cloud to stand with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and calls out (Exodus 34:6-7) what is known as the “Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s Mercy.” G-d proclaimed: “L-rd, L-rd, 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 children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.”

In our analysis of parashat Kee Tisah, 5760-2000 , we recalled the clever insight that was attributed to Rabbi Mayer Karelitz (1877-1955), the brother of the Chazon Ish. Rabbi Karelitz was asked: If the Children of Israel are bidden to cling to G-d and to imitate Him, then just as G-d is vengeful, should not all His People be vengeful as well? Rabbi Karelitz responded by noting that if human vengeance is preceded by twelve qualities of mercy, then perhaps, at that point, vengeance is indeed indicated and justified.

Some commentators note that the text in Exodus 34:7 reads, “Poh’kayd ah’von ah’voht ahl bah’nim v’ahl b’nay vah’nim, ahl she’lay’shim, v’ahl ree’bay’im,” that G-d recalls the iniquity of parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. A similar phrase, that G-d will visit the sin of the fathers upon the children and the grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations for G-d’s enemies, is found in the second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting idolatry, both in Exodus 20:5 and in Deuteronomy 5:9.

The commentators have difficulty with the concept of a vengeful G-d. They, therefore, explain that the words found in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:5 and Deteronomy 5:9), “Ayl Kahnah,” could mean that G-d is an “impassioned” G-d, rather than a vengeful or jealous G-d. “Poh’kayd” is taken to mean that G-d either “visits” the sins of the fathers upon the children, or “remembers” the sins of the fathers upon the children.

Rashi notes, on Exodus 20:5, that G-d only punishes those children who continue in the evil ways of their parents for three or four generations. Others explain this to mean that children are only punished if they have had the opportunity to learn otherwise, and nevertheless hold onto their parents’ wicked ways.

But what of children who never have an opportunity to learn differently? What of those who grow up in a household that is filled with wickedness and violence? The commentators draw on the word, “poh’kayd,” to mean remember. G-d “remembers” that these children never had an opportunity to know otherwise, and does not hold them accountable for their own or their parents’ misdeeds.

In a fascinating historical study by Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon , entitled, Sarei Ha’Me’ah, a six volume history of the greatest Jewish scholars of the last century, Rabbi Maimon cites a most intriguing response to the powerful question of the “vengeful G-d.” Rabbi Maimon writes extensively about Rabbi Zevi Hirsh Levin , who, aside from his great Talmudic scholarship, was well-versed in Hebrew grammar, Jewish history, philosophy, physics and geometry.

Known for his superior intelligence and his sharp tongue, a number of Rabbi Levin’s conversations with a local Duke and Christian clergy have been preserved. At one point, the Christian clergyman expressed his profound thanks to G-d that the Christians were given the commandment of love. Taunting Rabbi Levin, the priest noted the difference between the Christian deity of love and the Jewish G-d of vengeance. “You yourself describe Him as, ‘Ayl Kah’nah v’noh’kaym,’ a vengeful and revengeful G-d, whereas our god, is the god of love and loving-kindness.”

Rabbi Levin responded in kind by saying that Jews do not see it within the purview of mortals to judge whether a person deserves punishment or vengeance. Instead, Jews leave that decision to G-d, and reserve for themselves love and loving-kindness. Christians, however, have given the quality of love and loving-kindness to their deity, and have reserved for themselves the practice of vengeance!

According to some commentators, when one sincerely repents, a penitent’s sins are cleansed by G-d, to the point that the sins completely vanish. However, if one does not repent, the sins are not cleansed. According to The Sforno, those whose motivation for repentance is fear of punishment will only be partially cleansed. Only those whose motivation for repentance is love will be fully cleansed by G-d.

As the ArtScroll commentary states, the literal meaning of this text strongly implies that G-d does not simply gloss over sin. Ignoring sinful behavior would blur the lines between good and evil. This would encourage those who do evil to feel a false sense of security, encouraging them to act under the assumption that there will be no retribution, possibly leading to the breakdown of the entire moral structure of society.

Is the Jewish G-d a vengeful G-d? Hardly, but G-d does hold mortals accountable for their actions. It is G-d’s way of encouraging moral and ethical behavior, making the world in which we live, livable.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

“Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this coming Friday night, March 1, 2013. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!