Reflections: Ki Tisa
Can God really be angry? Moses appears to think so in this week’s sedra when he tells God, “Let not your anger blaze forth against your people whom you delivered from the Land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand”.
According to Maimonides, God can’t be angry because anger is a human attribute and anyone who thinks God can be angry could not have arrived at this conclusion by “intellectual speculation; he merely followed the external sense of the texts of the Scriptures” (Guide of the Perplexed. Cap 53).
But weren’t humans created in the image of God, so whatever traits we display must be present in the Divine personality?
Maimonides does acknowledge this in his next chapter, when he admits that, if you perceive one of God’s actions, for example, forgiving people, you can apply to it the name of the characteristic from which that action is derived – in this case, compassion. When this happens, God is mirroring a human attribute. An example which Maimonides brings from Scripture is as follows:
Just as a father is merciful to his children [Psalm 103] so I will pity them as a man pities his own son [Malachi 3, 17]
The way Moses persuades God to cool his anger is by reminding Him to mirror a human attribute – our concern about what people might think of us. In this scenario, God is a personal God who empathizes with our concern and worries about what non-believers think of Him.
There are many examples in Scripture of God changing his mind – sometimes this results in people being reprieved. In the book of Samuel, God regrets that He made Saul king after seeing how Saul failed to carry out His commandment to kill the Amalekites. In the book of Jonah, God decided not to destroy the people of Nineveh after they repent. This upsets Jonah, who had expected to be the instrument of their destruction. In this week’s sedra, God decides not to destroy the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf.
In the case of Saul, it is not immediately apparent that God did anything in pursuance of His regret, although it could be that God drove Saul into bitter opposition against David, which caused Saul’s downfall and death. In the cases of Nineveh and the Golden Calf, did God know from the outset that He would refrain from punishing the people?
In the end, God remains an enigma. We don’t know what was in His mind (or even whether He had one!). Perhaps we can learn something by understanding the attributes which He cloned within us.
Allan Myers is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue