Parashat Ki Tisa: The choreography of mercy

We can now better understand the placement of the incidents of the anger of God and Moses in reaction to the golden calf.

 HOW LONG is a moment? (photo credit: Andrik Langfield/Unsplash)
HOW LONG is a moment?
(photo credit: Andrik Langfield/Unsplash)

The story is familiar. The pinnacle of Moses’s leadership, literally and figuratively, was on the top of Mount Sinai, as he received from God “the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them” (Ex. 24:12).

That peak experience, however, was short-lived. Having recently left Egypt, a culture of numerous gods, the people at the base of the mountain were still adjusting to following not only just one God but an unseen God, compared to the visible statues of many gods. And then Moses, their visible emissary to this one and unseen God, had disappeared on the mountain. In a panic they said, “We do not know what has happened to him” (Ex. 32:1). In that fear of abandonment, they built “a molten calf” made of gold (Ex. 32:3-4).

The response of both God and Moses to this apparent lapse in faith and belief by the Israelites was anger. God said to Moses, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you a great nation” (Ex. 32:10). Moses would have none of this, and told God such actions would be very bad PR. God listened to Moses “and renounced the punishment God had planned to bring upon God’s people” (Ex. 32:14). However, a few verses later, anger got the best of Moses, as “he became enraged, and hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19).

This quick judgment by God and Moses certainly raises questions. One way to understand their actions is to note its placement within the biblical narrative. Shortly after the golden calf incident and the smashing of the tablets by Moses, God revealed His 13 attributes to Moses, after Moses had returned to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the new set of tablets.

One of those attributes is mercy (rahum) (Ex. 34:6).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

What do we mean by mercy?

Rabbi Michael Lerner makes a fascinating and insightful comment by examining the choreography between God and Moses at the proclamation of those 13 attributes. Moses, who had asked to see God’s face, was told by God instead to go “in the cleft of the crag” so that Moses would only then see God’s back (Ex. 33: 22-23). But Moses saw more than God’s back. Standing behind God, he not only saw the back of God but also was able to look over God’s shoulder and saw what God saw! That is exactly what mercy is about – being able to see the world from the perspective of someone else.

When people go in front of a judge and ask for mercy, they are asking the judge to step into their shoes and understand their reality and why they were motivated to do what they did. As Hillel taught, “Do not judge someone until you have put yourself in their place” (Avot 2:4).

That message is reinforced by an additional layer. The three-letter root of mercy/rahamim in Hebrew is resh-het-mem, which as a word means “womb.” What is the connection of womb to mercy? When a woman is pregnant, she needs to take into consideration not only her own needs but also those of the growing child within as she decides what to eat and drink and makes other lifestyle decisions. That same connection in Arabic exists between womb and mercy.

We can now better understand the placement of the incidents of the anger of God and Moses in reaction to the golden calf. Neither took into account or tried to understand the needs and realities of the Israelites at that moment. New to the relationship with an unseen God, having just come out of a land of visible god effigies, the people, seeing that Moses “took so long to come down from the mountain” (Ex. 32:1), were scared and confused. That the text immediately emphasizes the attribute and value of mercy can be seen as a veiled critique of the use of this anger by God and Moses.

The Talmud adds its own weight to this discussion. It asks, “What does God pray?” “Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav: God says: ‘May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and may I conduct Myself toward My children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law’” (Brachot 7a).

The Talmud asks another insightful question. “How long does God’s anger last?” It answers by saying: “a moment.” It then asks, “And how long is a moment?” Rabbi Avin, and some say Rabbi Avina, said: “A moment lasts as long as it takes to say [the word ‘rega’ (moment)]” (ibid.).

How does the Talmud conclude that God’s anger is so short-lived? “For it is stated: ‘His anger is but for a moment, His favor, for a lifetime’” (Psalms 30:6). And if you wish, say instead, from here: “Hide yourself for a brief moment, until the anger passes” (Isaiah 26:20) (Brachot 7a).

Both of these verses teach that God’s anger passes quickly, but even in such a short moment, irrevocable damage can be done. Many events in the world today can make us angry. We can justify anger as a human emotion but not as the source of our actions. Like God, we need to pray that our mercy should outweigh our anger.

So what about the justice that is called for, demanded, in such moments? We are taught by the prophet Micah, “It has been told to you, O human, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

“The three parts of Micah’s message are in tension. They are not simple, but they speak to the complexities of life. They encompass the everyday choices we make, and they point toward a grand vision.”

Rabbi Barbara Penzer

Rabbi Barbara Penzner comments, “The three parts of Micah’s message are in tension. They are not simple, but they speak to the complexities of life. They encompass the everyday choices we make, and they point toward a grand vision.” 

That tension is real, as real as the strain of living in a world where our ideals crash into reality. We are told that the Ark of the Covenant contained the shattered first set of tablets, along with the new whole set of tablets brought down by Moses (Bava Batra 14b). This reminds us that we carry in our engagement with the world the broken with imperfection, along with striving for the more perfect; anger and equanimity; justice and mercy.

Relatedly, there is a weight with all of this that can push us down and hold us back. It is easier, as we have seen in this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, to shatter and tear down – to grasp onto anger. The difference between the two sets of tablets? With the first, God did all the work; but with the second, God invited Moses to carve the new tablets, and God then wrote the holy words on them (Ex. 34:1). Taking into consideration the needs of the other is demonstrated with those second tablets. God realized that for those second set of tablets to be accepted by humans, Moses needed to be part of their creation. With this we see a different model than the earlier displays of anger.

In the King James Bible, the construction of the top of the Ark of the Covenant, where God would speak to Moses, is translated as “a mercy seat of pure gold” (Ex. 25:17).

One path to mercy (rahamim) and wholeness (shlemut) is when we attempt to see and discern the reality of the one standing before us (Avot 2:4). In some situations we are called upon to act individually, but in conflict there is often more than one party with agency, and so both individuals, both sides, need to try to step into the place of the other. Mercy is modeled, as we have explored, when Moses looked over God’s shoulder and was able to see a different perspective. Another model for mercy, a second step when appropriate, is modeled by the two winged cherubim on the top of the Ark: They face each other. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.