Parashah Ponderings

The Attribute of God We’d Rather Not Mention

Parashat Ki Tisa / פרשת כי תשא

Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses climbs back up Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets after he smashed the first set upon witnessing the Israelites rejoicing around the golden calf they had fashioned during his first 40-day absence atop the mountain. This time, however, Moses asks God for the merit of revealing God’s self before him. Agreeing to Moses’s request, God instructs Moses to stand in a cleft in the rock. There God will shield Moses’s face with God’s hand as God passes, lowering the hand only after God had passed. As this scene unfolds, God proclaims the greatness of the Divine One with these words:

“The Lord! the Lord! 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 He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 33:6-7)

These two verses contain what the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, of the 16th century consider to be the “thirteen attributes of God.” In explaining why we recite these verses whenever a Festival falls on a weekday, David Teutsch writes, “Reciting the attributes on the Festivals celebrates God’s presence as vividly experienced in the joyous observance of the holiday” (Kol Haneshama Prayerbook for Shabbat and Holidays, 1994, p. 390). We give especial prominence to these attributes when we recite them particularly when the ark is open and the Torah, the mythic word of God, is exposed for all to see.

But the tradition calls for reciting only half of what God proclaims to Moses. What is left unsaid is that God “visits the iniquity of parents upon childrenn and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 33:7). It seems that the Kabbalists were fine reciting all of God’s positive attributes before the holy ark, but this business of God’s retribution made them squeamish. This is not surprising. Who wants to be thinking of four generations of punishment while during an intense moment of devotion before the Torah?

Still, if we look at the Torah text on its own terms, it appears that God is unabashedly announcing that a component of God’s greatness is, in fact, God’s ability to “visit the iniquity of parents” upon subsquent generations of progeny. Rather than look away from these words in the Torah and pretend they are not there, we should look straight at them and ask in what sense they speak of God’s glory, rather than God’s ugly punitive side.

I’d like to propose that the positive attribute of God alluded to in this verse is God’s ability to teach and reteach generations of children the lessons their parents learned the hard way. If what God is doing is reminding the children of their parents waywardness, there then is an element of mercy in this aspect of God’s being. Taken the right way, the children and the children’s children through four generations will vow not to repeat their parents mistakes.

We might apply this lesson to climate change. Who can argue that all of us living today are paying the price for the callousness of our “parents” in regard to the environment? Perhaps the scientists who’ve opened our eyes to global warming and the activists who are trying to urge individuals and governments to do something about it are themselves acting as agents of God in “visiting the iniquity” of past generations on present and future generations. We shouldn’t vilify them for bearing bad news, but rather praise them for awakening us to the problem and causing us to act.

When we talk about God’s attributes, we are articulating those traits that we imagine are of such high value that we would ascribe them to God. Remembering that we are created in God’s image, i.e. that we are commanded to behave in ways that we imagine emulate God’s actions, these attributes of godliness then say more about us than about God. As we stand before the Torah, we are to recommit ourselves to exhibiting these same attributes, even the one that we’d prefer not to talk about: the one about remembering the mistakes of our ancestors that we need not repeat, whose costs we bear, and whose effects we must ameliorate.

We might not want to talk about God visiting the sins of our parents upon us and our children and our children’s children, but we must heed the greater lesson that the Torah is trying to teach us. While we may not naturally love the “punishing” God, we ought to love and appreciate that attribute of God who enables us to become better human beings.



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