World of the Sages: For pity's sake

The Bible proudly tells us that God does not show favor (Deuteronomy 10:17); the rich and famous are not given preferential treatment in judgment before the Almighty.

abstract angels 88 (photo credit: )
abstract angels 88
(photo credit: )
The Bible proudly tells us that God does not show favor (Deuteronomy 10:17); the rich and famous are not given preferential treatment in judgment before the Almighty. In fact, scripture intimates that this attribute is what makes God "great, mighty and awesome." Yet in open contradiction, the priestly blessing exhorts God to give special consideration to those being blessed, and even uses the same Hebrew phrase (Numbers 6:26). The glaring paradox bothered many sages and perplexed others as well. In one place Bloriya the convert asked Rabban Gamliel about the incongruity (B. Rosh Hashana 17b-18a). Our sages offer a variety of explanations; we will focus here on one approach. In our tractate (B. Berachot 20b) it is the ministering angels who accuse God of not keeping the Divine avowal against favoring: "You are partial to the Children of Israel as is evident from the priestly blessing!" God responds: "What do you expect, should I not favor Israel?! In my Torah I told them that after they are satiated they should bless me and they are so bighearted and careful that they recite the grace after eating a minor amount, such as an olive bulk or the volume of an egg!" Biblical law mandates reciting a blessing after having eaten and been satiated: "When you eat and are satisfied, then you must bless God your Lord" (Deuteronomy 8:10). Our sages discuss whether grace should be recited after eating the equivalent of the mass of an olive or of an egg (M. Berachot 7:2). What ever the minimum volume that requires grace, this barest amount is more like a snack rather than a feast and we would hardly expect to be sated after such a nibble. Another source that follows a similar line has the Divine attribute of judgment accusing the Almighty of being too lenient and favoring his subjects (Tanna Dvei Eliyahu Zuta 23). Here God replies: "How can I not be compassionate, for when the Jewish People left Egypt they were willing to accept all the commandments. Moreover, they are willing to teach the Tradition, gather in groups to study and even pay from their own pockets to hire teachers!" Such Godly responses barely hold water; the perplexing contradiction remains as the Almighty appears to flout the divine rule against being partial. Perhaps God is saying: "How can I not show them favor? They may not always deserve it and perhaps I should not grant it - but I cannot help myself." Parents are generally partial to their own children. Which parent doesn't think that their children are the brightest and cutest of all children? God - as our parent - only sees the good in us. It is as if the Almighty says: "They are my children, they are loyal to me, doing my bidding even beyond the letter of the law. Could I not favor them?" Elsewhere in the Talmud, a tale is told of a drought (B. Ta'anit 23a). The spring was near, most of the last winter month - Adar - had passed, the rains had not arrived and the situation was grim. A message was sent to the Second Temple sage, Honi: "Pray that rain should fall." Honi acquiesced, but despite his prayers the rains did not come. He drew a circle and standing inside it, he adamantly addressed the Almighty: "Master of the universe, Your children have turned to me for I am like a family member of Yours. I swear that I will not move from here until You show mercy to your children!" Miraculously it began to drizzle, whereupon Honi's disciples turned to him: "It appears that the rains are only falling to release you from your oath!" Once again Honi turned heavenward: "This is not what I asked for! I requested rains that will fill wells, cisterns and caverns." Torrential rains began and the students hurriedly came to Honi: "It looks like the rains are intent on destroying the world." Honi turned to the Almighty a third time: "This is not what I asked for! I expected rains that bring blessing and express goodwill." The rains began to fall steadily, continuing until all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were forced to high ground on the Temple Mount: "Master," implored the students, "Just as you prayed for the rains to come, pray that they should cease." Honi, however, balked: "I have a tradition that we do not pray for the cessation of an abundance of good." Nevertheless, in light of the dire circumstances, Honi ordered: "Bring me a thanksgiving sacrifice." A bull was brought, and Honi placed his two hands on the animal: "Master of the universe, Your people cannot withstand an excess of good nor an excess of punishment. If You are angry with them they cannot survive, if You are too good to them they cannot survive. May it be your will that the rains cease and there be relief in the world." A gust of wind blew, the clouds dissipated and the sun shone. The people went out into the fields and collected truffles and mushrooms. The leading rabbinic figure of the day, Shimon ben Shetah, sent a stern message to Honi: "If you were not Honi, I would have you excommunicated for you have taken the Heavenly keys to rain into your own hands and thus have desecrated the name of God with your capricious requests. But what can I do to you, for you misbehave and the Almighty fulfills your behest! You are just like a child who is naughty, yet the parents do the child's bidding." In the liturgy of the High Holy Days we often recall the duality of our relationship with the Almighty. God is at once a master over us and a parent to us. We play the dual role of servants and of children. Yet we would undoubtedly prefer the parent-child bond over the master-serf relationship, so that when sitting in judgment, God feels compelled to be partial towards us, just as parents favor their children. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.