Parashat Shelach: God of Mercy/Justice
Rabbi Dr. Barry Wimpfheimer, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The title story of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach, is the story of the ten spies who persuade their Israelite brethren of the dangers lurking in the Land of Israel. When the people resultantly complain to Moshe and Aharon about their plight, God threatens to send a plague to destroy the people and rebuild the nation from Moshe. In response, Moshe petitions God and God responds, סלחתי כדבריך, “I pardon, as you have asked.” This phrase is familiar to us from the high holiday liturgy where it suggests that God completely erases the sin. In the context of our Parasha, though, this pardon is followed by verses in which God announces the severe punishment of a forty-year sojourn in the desert for this crime. Some rabbinic readers attempted to resolve this seeming contradiction. Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, for example, says, “even though I have pardoned, nevertheless the punishment remains intact.”
As a rabbinical student I once sermonized on the seeming contradiction between God’s pardon and the subsequently elaborated punishment. To resolve this tension between God’s explicit commitment to mercy and the subsequently expressed punishment, I suggested that one could perhaps take the forty-year sojourn in the desert not as punishment, but as merciful parenting. Like a parent who has finally recognized a child’s limitations, God realizes in the aftermath of the spy incident that the slaves of Egypt are scared of the autonomous life that awaits them in the land of Israel, expelled from the cocoon of desert existence with all of its divine sustenance and protection. The forty-year sojourn, I argued, was designed to allow the slave generation of the Exodus to die naturally and their children, who had not been slaves in Egypt, would merit entry into the land and all of the challenges of conquest.
In retrospect, I find my own exegesis itself the product of a sometimes problematic dichotomy within God between the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy. Traditional readings of the Bible often attribute moments of divine punishment to the attribute of justice, and moments of divine forgiveness to the attribute of mercy. The most famous iteration of this dichotomy is with respect to the different names of God in the opening chapters of Genesis. In constructing a contradiction between God’s statement of pardon and the announcement of punishment I was essentially highlighting an internal clash within the divine attributes, suggesting that God claimed to be manifesting the attribute of mercy while in fact manifesting the attribute of justice.
A problem that emerges from the dichotomy of the attributes is that we tend to read our sources through this lens, creating a bifurcated image of God as either wholly merciful or wholly just. Like a blinking light, God manifests in either a merciful or just form; either form is pure, but the two are separate from each other. This condition of a pure bipolar God creates undesirable exegesis and theology.
The best example of the dangers of the dichotomy are the rabbinic and liturgical treatment of the divine attributes found in the context of the Golden Calf incident at Exodus 34. God here expresses a number of divine attributes, concluding with the statement that God does not wipe away sin (ונקה לאינקה), but remits punishment to descendants for four generations. Rabbinic readers take advantage of the verse’s construction to (mis)interpret this final statement to mean that God wipes away (ונקה) all sin. This interpretation is repeated throughout our liturgy and in the responsive reading of the congregation during fast-day Torah reading. Where the biblical text suggests a God who tempers justice by dissipating harsh punishment over time (even if that punishment unfairly affects subsequent innocent generations), the rabbinic and liturgical text interprets a God who is wholly merciful, completely erasing sin without punishment. In this week’s Torah reading Moshe explicitly invokes the divine attributes of Exodus 34 and receives God’s response: “I pardon, as you have asked.”
If we resist the strong dichotomy of God as alternately merciful or just, we can understand God’s response as a specific reference to Exodus 34: just as God there does not erase sins but dissipates the force of their punishment, so here God withholds the divine plague that would have instantly destroyed the people, and punishes with a forty-year sojourn that allows the Exodus generation to die of natural causes. God forgives, but does not absolve. Deserved punishment is still meted out, but without the force of God’s initial inclination.
If man is in God’s image and God in ours we are best served not with an idealization of a bi-polar God of mercy and justice, but a complex God who can mete out justice with mercy and temper the urge to forgive with the need to punish. Can any among us truly pardon a punishable offense committed against us? Is doing so psychologically healthy? By deconstructing the dichotomy of God as alternately merciful and just, and creating a complex God who is simultaneously both, we establish a model for our own behavior that is both realistic and worthy of emulation.