…Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the ground and prostrated himself [before God] (Exodus 34:8). What did Moses see? R. Chanina b. Gamla said: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute of] Slow to Anger. But the Rabbis say: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute] of Truth. It is taught by the one who said that [Moses] saw Slow to Anger, as it is taught [in a baraita]: When Moses ascended to heaven, he found the Holy Blessed One sitting and writing, “Slow to Anger.” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, is Slow to Anger [only] for the righteous?” [God] said to him, “Even for the wicked.” [Moses] said to [God], “Let the wicked be obliterated.” [God] said to him, “Now (i.e., in time) you will see that you need this.” When Israel sinned [in response to the report of the spies, at which time Moses implored God to forgive the people], [God] said to [Moses], “Did you not say to Me that Slow to Anger should be for the righteous [alone]?” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, and is this not what You said to me: ‘[Slow to Anger] is even for the wicked’?” This is [the meaning of] that which is written, Therefore, I pray You, let Adonai’s forbearance be great, as You have spoken, saying… (Numbers 14:17). (BT Sanhedrin 111a, b)
The human proclivity for vengeance and retribution needs no introduction. Most all of us are living proof that the tendency to approve punishment for those we don’t like far exceeds our sense that justice demands equal treatment for our friends and allies. The passage above envisions Moses wrestling with this all-too-human emotional and moral dilemma. At the root of the discussion is a famous account in Exodus of Moses’ direct view of God on Mount Sinai: Adonai came down in a cloud; [God] stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the name “Adonai.” Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5-7) This passage is known as “The Thirteen Attributes” it enumerates. These verses emphasize that God’s forgiveness, which extend to “the thousandth generation” over God’s willingness to punish evil-doers, which extends only to “the third and fourth generations.”
Given that Torah asserts that God descended in a cloud and stood alongside Moses, the Rabbis ask: What, precisely, did Moses see in that moment that led him to hastily prostrate himself before God just as God finished proclaiming the Thirteen Attributes? R. Chanina b. Gamla says Moses saw the middah (attribute or character trait) of Erekh Apayim (Slow to Anger), God’s forbearance and reluctance to punish. R. Chanina’s colleagues disagree, claiming Moses bowed in homage to Truth. However, a baraita is brought in support of R. Chanina’s opinion; it claims that Moses paid prostrated before God in that particular moment precisely because he saw God writing the words “Slow to Anger” into the Torah that God would momentarily reveal to Moses. He asks God if this consideration would be given only to righteous people. God responds no: Slow to Anger is for all people, including the wicked. Moses objects, telling God that the wicked should be quickly destroyed. But God enigmatically replies: Don’t be too quick to wish for that, Moses because a time will come when you will request that I exercise just this attribute in favor of people who exhibit behavior you now condemn; then you will be glad Slow to Anger applies to them, as well.
Sure enough, what God predicts transpires. As recounted in Numbers chapters 13-14, Moses dispatches twelve spies on a reconnaissance mission of the Land of Israel, ten return with a negative report that frightens and disheartens the people. As a result, Israel rebels against God’s command and threatens to pelt Moses and Aaron with stones. God expresses the desire to strike the people with pestilence and disown them (14:12) but Moses exhorts God to forgive them, evoking God’s exceptional forbearance (14:18). In his own enumeration of God’s divine attributes, closely echoing Exodus 34:5-7. Moses lists Slow to Anger first. Perhaps this fascinating detail inspired this aggadic narrative: Adonai! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generation (v. 18). Moses concludes, Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt (v. 19). The phrase, “as You have forgiven…ever since Egypt” evokes the notion of Slow to Anger. And, indeed, God pardons Israel (v. 20). God’s warning to Moses has come to fruition. If Slow to Anger is appropriate for the righteous, who are not in need of forgiveness because they have not sinned, do not the wicked need God’s forbearance and forgiveness all the more? Is not what’s good and due the righteous goose good and appropriate for the wicked gander, as well?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Is the middah (attribute) of Erekh Apayim—being slow to anger and not rushing to judgment— an unearned concession to the wicked, or a fundamental element of justice? Why or why not? Are there implications for criminal and civic justice in our own times? What are the implications for our personal relationships?
- The principle of God’s forbearance toward both for righteous and wicked is encapsulated in a narrative about Moses’ inability to understand and foresee that he might value God’s forbearance at a future time when Israel is “wicked.” Can you identify real-world examples when you were unable to see the other side of an issue until it impacted your life personally?
- Do you consider yourself slow to anger? If not, how might you cultivate this attribute?