God’s mercy through a magnifying glass

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.

The generation of Israelites that left Egypt and sojourned in the desert for 40 years has a notorious reputation. Though they were privileged to be redeemed from centuries of bondage, though they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they are known as Dor Hamidbar, the Generation of the Desert.

Theirs is a checkered history of receiving God’s beneficence, on one hand, and testing both Moses’ and God’s patience, on the other hand. Instances of Israelite backsliding — complaining, rebelling, complaining again — are almost too numerous to count. The worst instance, which appears in Parshat Ki Tisa, is the story of the Golden Calf.

In the culmination of the Golden Calf story, God reveals the 13 divine attributes of mercy — a passage that we include in our holiday liturgy and especially in our Yom Kippur prayers. So this terrible story has a happy ending: a stunning moment of reconciliation between God and Israel, a moment when divine mercy overcomes divine judgment.

Or does it?

Here is the list of God’s attributes of mercy, in Exodus 34:6-7: “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.”

We were doing rather well through “forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” But what’s all this talk about not remitting punishment and visiting the sins of parents upon generations of descendants? These are the attributes of a merciful God?
The ancient rabbis were troubled about this, too. When they quoted this passage in the prayer book, they cut verse 7 in half: “…nosei avon va-fesha v’hata’ah v’nakkei…” — “[God] forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, and forgives.”

But that’s not what the verse in the Torah says. As a matter of fact, when quoting the verse, the rabbis chopped a key phrase right in half! The Torah says, “v’nakkei lo y’nakkei,” which means, “God surely will not forgive.”

In the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar pulls a grammatical sleight of hand by suggesting that the Torah meant two things: “v’nakkei” — God forgives those who repent — and “lo y’nakkei” — God does not forgive those who don’t repent.

But surely Rabbi Elazar knew biblical grammar, and surely the rabbis who quoted these verses in the prayer book knew what they were doing: Not only were they ignoring the clear meaning of the verse, they were changing the theological point of this biblical verse.

I think they were uncomfortable with the notion of a God who visits the sins of parents upon children, grandchildren and beyond. So they “magnified” God’s mercy in their retelling of this passage.

For some of us, this bit of theological editing is an interesting example of the evolution from biblical theology to rabbinic theology.

But I think there’s a subtle moral challenge to us as well. Judaism teaches us that, in a general sense, we are to try to emulate God’s merciful attributes in our own lives. If here, when we read Parshat Ki Tisa, we’re willing to accept the rabbis’ magnification of God’s mercy — if God appears even more merciful in the rabbinic retelling than in the original biblical passage — how much more should we try to magnify our own mercy in our relations with our fellow human beings?

Rabbi David L. Abramson is  an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El and a chaplain at the Hebrew Home.

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