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Parashat Shelah Lekha 5783

To Err is Human; to Forgive is ...?

June 13, 2023
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval ('06)

God is out of patience, ready to give up on the grumbling Israelites. God and Moshe have attempted to transform a group of homeless, freed slaves into a nation, while the people have struggled with dissension, lack of faith and understandable fears about their future. They complain, rebel and grumble. (The Book of Numbers might also be called the Book of Grumblers!)

In this week’s parasha, this “generation of the wilderness,”dor ha-midbar, has committed the second of its most egregious acts of rebellion. Earlier, they built and worshipped a golden calf. In Shelah lekha, twelve scouts, a leader from each tribe, report on their mission to check out the promised land. They all agree that the land is fertile and desirable, but ten of the twelve recommend against going forward, stirring fear and doubt and demoralizing the people. The Israelites declare, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we might die in the wilderness!” And they conclude, “Let us head back to Egypt!” (Numbers 14: 2-4)

After all of the wonders, the miracles and the teachings that God has bestowed upon them, the people have no faith in the mission. God too is now prepared to end the entire enterprise, wipe out this people and start again from scratch with Moshe. “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” God asks Moshe. “I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far greater than they!” (Numbers 14:1112)

God’s words, “I will strike them…I will make of you a nation…,” as in the JPS translation, sound decisive and definitive. But the nuances of translation offer an alternative reading. Both Everett Fox and Robert Alter translate these verses not with the words “I will” but with the words “Let me…” as in “let Me strike them… let Me make of you a great nation.” It is as though rather than making a declaration, God is asking something of Moshe. Could God be asking Moshe for approval or permission? Or, as Jacob Milgrom similarly suggests,

“I will… I will: Rather, “let me… let me.” The verbs should be taken as cohortatives, equivalent to “Now let me be that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10); that is, in the two major demonstrations of apostasy, the golden calf and the scouts, God asks Moses to intercede on behalf of Israel. Here, then, is a recognition that prophetic intercession can block divine retribution. This and more: God is actually cuing Moses in his role as intercessor and intermediary – perhaps even testing him – that by his intercession he may save his people. (The JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers 14:12)

Whether or not he is being prompted by God, Moshe rises to the occasion and advocates passionately for his people. First, as he did in the incident of the golden calf, he points out that if God abandons this people, God’s reputation in the world as a great power will be destroyed.

Moshe then launches into an eloquent plea aimed to draw out God’s compassion. “I pray,” says Moshe, “let Adonai’s forbearance be great…yigdal koah Adonai” (Numbers 14:17). He uses one of God’s own words, gadol, for a different purpose. Refusing the “great nation” (“goy gadol”) that God has offered to make of him, Moshe asks rather that God’s forbearance, strength – koah  – be great, yigdal. In the Hebrew text, the word “yigdal” even has an enlarged letter yod, corresponding to the word’s meaning.

Moshe’s words to a God whose patience is completely exhausted reflect an understanding that it can take great strength – koah – for anyone, even God, to be compassionate and forgiving. As Ibn Ezra comments on this verse, “Only those who have great forbearance have the great strength needed to destroy their anger.”

God, of course, is supposed to have such forbearance, and Moshe reminds God of that, with God’s self-description from Exodus 34. “As You have declared; Adonai, slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression… so pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people…”

God responds in a succinct line of two Hebrew words, “Salahti kid‘varekha” – I pardon, as you have asked. In this powerful moment, God models the capacity to listen and to forgive. No wonder this verse found a central place in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, as a reminder that forgiveness is possible.

Even more, God’s specific words of pardon are striking and significant. God does not say, I forgive, because I am great or I am compassionate. Or, I forgive, because I am all-powerful, because I am God. Rather, God forgives “as you have spoken, kid’varekha.” God explicitly acknowledges that God’s forgiveness was in response to the words, the plea of Moshe, a human being.

Moshe leads God to forgiveness. Perhaps this was God’s idea, or a test, as some suggest, or perhaps not. In any case, the scene demonstrates the powerful idea that people and God are partners in the work of forgiveness. Moshe’s compassion and care for his people help God find the patience to forgive. Again we might think of Yom Kippur, and the core belief that people must ask and offer forgiveness before God can grant pardon for our sins. It is our own strength, our compassion, our patience, our ability to let go of anger, that allow God’s forgiveness to flow, on Yom Kippur and always.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine,” wrote the English poet Alexander Pope. Our parasha might guide us to say instead, “To err is human; to forgive is human; to forgive is human and divine.”
Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.