Gratuitous Greatness

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Bnei Yisroel had left Egypt and were now ready to enter the Promised Land. The people approached Moshe and asked to send spies to reconnoiter the land before their entry. Moshe then asked Hashem for permission to do so, and Hashem acquiesced to the peoples’ request. However, things did not turn out as Moshe had hoped and expected, and the spies returned with a negative report about the land and its inhabitants, instilling such fear into the nation that they want to abort their journey and return to Egypt.

In response to the cries of the people who had demonstrated a lack of faith in the God Who redeemed them, Hashem tells Moshe He will destroy the nation and found a new nation from Moshe. Here again, Moshe pleads with Hashem on behalf of his people. Moshe argues that the nations of the world will rationalize that although Hashem took Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt with tremendous miracles, He does not have the power to bring them into the Promised Land. [Perhaps He has no power over the other gods.] Moshe continues: “And now, may the strength of my Lord be magnified as You have spoken, saying, [reciting the Thirteen attributes of Hakodosh Boruch Hu] ‘Hashem, Slow to Anger, Abundant in Kindness, Forgiver of iniquity and willful sin… forgive now the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your Kindness...” Hashem answer, “I have forgiven because of your words.”

But then Hashem immediately continues, “But as I live – and the Glory of Hashem fills the entire world [that this generation will not] see the Land that I swore to give to their forefathers.”

This dialogue raises several questions. First, what was Moshe referring to when he repeated back to Hashem what we refer to as Hashem’s thirteen attributes? When was it that You, Hashem, have spoken them? Then an additional question arises. If Hashem has indeed forgiven, how does he then decree to punish this generation, that they will not enter the Land?

Where Had Moshe heard this mantra? The medrash relates Moshe’s first encounter atop Har Sinai. Moshe sees Hashem writing these thirteen attributes. When Hashem reaches the words, “Slow to anger,” Moshe says, as he assumes, “For the righteous,” to which Hashem replies, “Even for the wicked.” Hashem answers, “Even for the wicked.” When Moshe objects, Hashem tells him that there will come a time when Moshe himself will ask for this attribute even for the wicked. That time had now come, and Moshe acknowledges the truth Hashem had revealed to him on Sinai.

We begin our discussion of the second question with Rabbi Minzberg in Ben Melech. He explains that indeed Moshe wanted not only to save Bnei Yisroel from death, but to also lead them into Eretz Yisroel. However, Moshe also understood that if Hashem was this angry, he could ask only for one concession at a time, so he asked Hashem to spare the lives of the people. He had hoped, after that concession, to ask Hashem to let them enter the land. But Hashem preempted that request by swearing immediately after granting life that he would not permit them to enter the Land.

One must understand that although a transgression may be forgiven, there remain consequences and ripple effects from that action. So too with the sin of the spies. Our Sages tell us that because Bnei Yisroel cried on that night, that night of Tisha b’Av/the Ninth of Av, would remain a night for crying throughout the generations. And indeed this has been so. However, Rabbi Asher Weiss puts a different spin on these events. Initially, writes Rabbi Weiss, Hashem had hoped to make His Name great by bringing Bnei Yisroel into the Land and miraculously vanquishing all the foes within the Land. When that plan failed, Hashem resorted to glorifying His Name among the nations by exiling His people among the nations. What greater miracle is there than the survival of the Jewish Nation throughout the millenia, despite being dispersed among all the nations, despite suffering untold hardships, discrimination, and threats of annihilation. That Am Yisroel chai/The Nation of Israel lives is the greatest testament to Hashem’s glory.

We must also understand that there are multiple levels of forgiveness with many layers, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. Damage has been done, and the consequences are part of the cleansing process. Our souls also need to be repaired. While repair can be accomplished through major suffering, repair can also be achieved through multiple, mini frustrations and challenges. One can exact expiation through hurling a large stone at the culprit, or one can hopefully achieve a similar result by smashing that stone into pebbles and tossing the pebbles at the culprit in intervals. Hashem sprinkles small frustrations and challenges throughout our lives to minimize the punishment for our sins, writes Rabbi Rabinowitz. We want Hashem to exercise His gevurah/strength, to control and rein in His anger, and Manifest His greatness by His power of control, of allowing His compassion to dominate His sense of strict justice, adds the Sifsei Chaim.

In the medrash we cited, Moshe feared that if Hashem were slow to anger, the evildoers would lose all sense of culpability and responsibility for their actions. But Hashem reassures him of the power of forbearance and restraint. With forbearance, those who sinned have the time to realize that they can do teshuvah. This creates even greater glory for Hashem than immediate punishment, and unites Hashem attributes of compassion and mercy with His attribute of justice, so that we recognize both as aspects of the One God, as we testify each day with the recitation of Shema.

Rebbetzin Smiles read a powerful story from Rabbi Spero’s new book The Spark of a Story. She read of a victim of the Holocaust,Pinchas Naftali, who, at the moment he was being summarily executed shouted out, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” For this affront, the Nazi decided to beat him into a slow death instead of shooting him. Although Naftali Pinchas survived, his mind never recovered. From that day until the day of his death, the only words that passed his lips were the words of Shema, shouted out twice daily for seventy years.

Hashem created the world with an abundance of kindness, but it is up to us to bring that kindness down. This was Moshe’s request. And just as there are multiple levels of forgiveness, there are also levels of kindness, writes the Oshorover Rebbe in Be’er Moshe. Hashem can forgive regular sins with kindness, but greater sins require godel chasodecha/[His] greater kindness; Hashem treats us with mercy and compassion, but He revives the dead mechaye meitim berachamim rabim/with tremendous mercy. The Oshover Rebbe points out that reviving the dead applies not only to physical death, but also to emotional and psychological death. When Hashem raises someone from a deep state of depression, He is reviving that man’s spirit. Hashem revives our spirits, cleanses our souls with His tremendous compassion. We ask Hashem to access that greater kindness and compassion even when we sin.

Hashem is the Master of these thirteen attributes, but each of us can access these middot/attributes within ourselves. When we access a particular attribute within ourselves in our relationship with others, writes Rabbi Haskel Levenstein, Hashem treats us with that same characteristic. If we are to ask Hashem for greater kindness, we have to treat others with greater kindness as well. We need to act, not just recite, these attributes.

This concept explains why Moshe did not ask Hashem to remember our forefathers in this instance. With their crying, Bnei Yisroel demeaned the value of Eretz Yisroel. In contrast, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov loved the Land Hashem promised them and valued it greatly. Calling on the merit of our ancestors was a contradiction to the sin of the nation and therefore Moshe could not use it on their behalf.

 Therefore, suggests Rabbi Biederman, when one finds himself in need of salvation, one should put himself forth completely to help another human being, as Hashem Himself would, and arouse Hashem’s greater compassion. Further, adds Rabbi Leibel Eiger, when we sense Hashem stretching His hand out in judgment against us, we ask Him to bring us back with goodness rather than through suffering. Kindness can also bring us to teshuvah.

 There is a tremendous difference between gevurah/might and koach/power, notes Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Might shows strength in punishing, destructive ways. It is the way other nations relate to their gods. But Hashem has the strength reflected in koach/ the power of restraint, of redirection toward creation.

We carry within ourselves in some degree every one of Hashem’s attributes, writes Rabbi Wolbe. A person can be angry and indignant at someone who wronged him, but he can also be compassionate and merciful, and subdue his anger. There are always circumstances in someone else’s life that we are unaware of, that mitigate his actions, or even prove that his act was totally inadvertent, not meant to hurt us at all. If we can treat the other with kindness, Hashem will in turn treat us with kindness.

Dovid Hamelech understood very well that He had control over nothing except over himself. At some point in his life, he lost his entire empire, ruling only over the staff in his hand. With this staff, he stood tall and maintained his dignity in spite of his circumstances, writes Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen. When a person can maintain his self control, overcome his ego to focus on others, can see their needs with compassion, he makes Hashem’s presence more manifest in the world and awakens the strong kindness and compassion of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

In the last blessings Moshe gives the Tribes of Israel, Moshe says of Hashem, “He rides [upon] across the heavens to help you.” Rabbi Brazile interprets this to mean that when we do His will on earth, we increase His power in this world. When a Jew tries to emulate Hashem and refuses to listen to the yetzer horo, he is enabling Hashem to ride across the heavens to help us. When we allow our compassion to overcome our strict judgment or righteous indignation, we are shining a mirror back to Hakodosh Boruch Hu so that He will reflect it back to us. Especially in exile, we can exhibit even greater Godliness by emulating and taking advantage of Hashem’s patience and forbearance. By exercising restraint, we model Hashem’s restraint and increase the sanctity of the world. When we maintain our values in spite of challenges, when we rule over ourselves, we encourage Hashem to treat us likewise, with kindness instead of with harsh judgment.