Parshas Ki Sisa has the sin of the golden calf, the receiving of the tablets of the 10 commandments, the mitzvah of Shabbat, a near extermination of the Jewish people by God, and the mistranslation as to why Michelangelo thought Moses had horns. It is a jam packed parsha. But it also has one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Torah. In this week’s parsha God refers to Himself as a jealous and Almighty God.
Strangely enough, I heard an interview this week on the radio with David Javerbaum, the writer of the popular one person show An Act of God. The play was inspired by a twitter account (@TheTweetofGod) the author had been writing for years where he made funny and sarcastic tweets in the voice of the Old Testament God. In the interview Javerbaum said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) something to the effect of that they had cast Jim Parsons as God because they needed a nice guy to juxtapose the wrathful merciless things the character of God does in the play. That the play and twitter account were inspired by the spiteful God of the Old Testament. And that if Javerbaum believed in God, it couldn’t be this mean, hate-filled deity. And I think this is a sentiment shared by many. So when the Torah itself comes along and says “I am a Jealous God” how are we supposed to rectify that with the core belief that God is, always has been, and always will be good?
God as a Relationship
Some people will only focus on the bad. X, Y, and Z bad things that God does means he’s a horrible being. Others will look past the “bad” God does and simply not think about it. Both mentalities are intellectually dishonest. To have a relationship with God it has to be just that, a relationship. You have to take the good and with deal with the bad. It has to grow and change as you grow and change.
To look at only the bad that God does isn’t fair. That fact that we live in a time where you can go to the store for food, live in a democracy, and have the library of human knowledge at your finger tips, how can anyone not be thankful? Funny enough, in the same Parsha that says God is Jealous, God lists his 13 Attributes of Mercy. 13 aspects of God and his qualities of mercy among which are: slow to anger, abounding in kindness, preserves kindness for thousands of generations, forgives transgression and sin, and he forgives those who are penitent. So to cherry pick the bible means a person’s not really looking for an honest understanding of God, but a myopic understanding that fulfills their desire to disregard it.
But the Torah does say “I’m a jealous God.” It even says “Jealous is His Name.” That of the many names of God, one of them is literally Jealous. It’s here that we have to understand an essential aspect of Torah analysis. God is impossible for humans to come anywhere close to understanding. (If you want try to tackle that, go study Kabbalah but learn it from the right people.) The Torah talks about the Right Hand of God. God doesn’t have a right hand. “God reconsidered.” God doesn’t reconsider. The Torah is written in a way for us to understand Him the best we can. Through our perspective.
So how does one interpret a “Jealous God” even though he’s not really jealous? One word: Consequences. Everything we do affects the world in a myriad of ways. The ways we can see and the ways we can’t. Physically, scientifically, spiritually. If you’re a country continuing to run up a massive debt and you don’t pay it, that’s going to come back to you. If we, as a world, continue to pollute and destroy the planet, the world will become uninhabitable. It’s those disasters which we could view as wrathful or a punishment from God, but we also see it as economical and environmental consequences. (Look at it scientifically all you want, but both practices are prohibited in the Torah.) When we see God refer to himself as Jealous, it is when he warns the Jewish people not to worship other gods with other civilizations. God’s not really going to be jealous. But Jews worshiping idols will have destructive effects on the world which will lead to disastrous spiritual consequences. Does God need to say jealous? Maybe not. But it does help frame the “relationship” motif nicely.
Okay so we’re in a relationship with God and He is “jealous” some of the time. So if I sin, God’s going to put me in the dog house? No. The first two aspects of mercy in those 13 Attributes I touched on above are Hashem, Hashem. The first aspect of mercy is God’s name and the second aspect of mercy is God’s name. What is this? The rules of Fight Club? What the Torah is saying here is that our relationship with God is constant. He will be your God before you sin and he will be the same God after you sin. Remember, a relationship is only as strong as the weakest link. If God is constant, then the strength of your relationship is determined by you.
So if you want to have that relationship, remember to always look at the good, think critically about any “bad” that might be happening, know that what you do has real and lasting consequences but those consequences are ultimately for the best, and He will always be there for you to come back to.