Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mercy 1000, punishment 4

The Torah reading for the Shabbat during Sukkot bears no obvious relationship to the Sukkot festival.

It’s from Exodus, and contains no reference to Sukkot (passages containing commandments about the festival are read on other days of Sukkot), but rather the request of Moses to know more about God—even to see God.

God responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” but warns, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live,” and also instructs Moses to carve two more stone tablets to replace those that he shattered when he saw the golden calf.

Then, astonishingly, God passes in front of Moses, and the famous 13 attributes of God are named: “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 He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

It is not clear from the Hebrew text whether God says this, or Moses. The Jewish Publication Society translations attribute the words to God; some others attribute them to Moses. It makes sense to attribute them to God because they are an answer to Moses’s request to know more about God.

But why should this reading be assigned to the Shabbat in Sukkot? One answer is that the description of the grandeur and majesty of God contrasts so sharply with our experience of Sukkot. That is, the fragile, temporary sukkah reminds us of the fragility of human life.

It’s a tradition of Ashkenazic communities also to read Qohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the Shabbat during Sukkot. The emphasis in Ecclesiastes on the impermanence and insignificance of human life accords with this theme.

Another reason for making this the Shabbat reading might be its description of God as compassionate and merciful. The list of God’s attributes should be fresh in our minds from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and there is a traditional belief that an unfavorable judgment sealed on Yom Kippur can still be reversed during Sukkot.

The idea that God visits the iniquity of parents on children, even “upon the third and fourth generations,” is troubling. That children should suffer for their parents’ sins seems objectionable. It also seems to conflict with the statement, in the same passage, that God shows kindness “to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”

The explanation of traditional commentators that we should compare the promise of a thousand generations of mercy with that of up to four generations of punishment also seems less than completely persuasive. It makes more sense to interpret this contrast as a reflection of reality: some sins have effects that are real and lasting, and it is not always in the power of even the most repentant sinner to reverse those effects.

To cite a too-obvious example, it is often reported that many adults who abuse or neglect children were themselves abused or neglected as children. The effects of the abuse that they suffered are thus felt at least into the third generation. On a broader scale, conditions that impoverish people in one generation or deny them access to education will be felt in society for many years to come.

So perhaps there is a further meaning to be drawn from this selection. Before Yom Kippur we are enjoined to redress wrongs we have committed against others. On Yom Kippur we repent for those and for sins that impair our relationship with God. Perhaps in the weeks after Yom Kippur we should concern ourselves with mitigating the lasting effects of wrongs that those who committed them cannot fully redress on their own.

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