God’s True Strength (And Ours Too)
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelah Lekha, God tells Moses to send twelve scouts to the land of Canaan to see what there is to see. Moses instructs the scouts to “see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” (Num. 13:18-19). The whole premise of the expedition is problematic, since the entire journey to the land is steeped in the belief that God is leading the people of Israel to a land of milk and honey. What need is there for such a report? This problem leads the midrash and commentators to distance the episode of the scouts from God, saying that it was Moses who played the leading role in this story and that he was motivated not by a need to know about the land but by a desire to address the needs of the people he was leading. Despite all of God’s greatness that they had witnessed, they were still in need of reassurance.
This delicate dance has led me to reflect on power. How is it that God is powerful enough to rescue the people of Israel, but not powerful enough to ensure their faith? How is it that Moses is powerful enough to lead the people out of Egypt, but not powerful enough to help them make good choices? As I ask these questions, I hear an echo of Moses’s question to the scouts about the people of Canaan—are they “strong or weak”? What is the definition of strong (hazak) and what is the definition of weak (rapheh)?
The complexity of the definitions of strength and power becomes even more intense when we look at what happens after the scouts come back with their bad report. God is furious and threatens to destroy the people, choosing for Moses alone to replace them as the bearer of the covenant. In Numbers 14:11-13, we read:
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs [ottot] that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence [dever] and disown them, and I will make you a nation far more numerous.
God’s frustration with the Israelites’ behavior leads the Holy One to want to visit dever—one of the plagues of Egypt—on them. In a rage about the rebelliousness of the people, God seemingly can’t tolerate the powerlessness of being spurned and reaches out for the sign of divine power that is supposedly unmistakable—the plagues that led Pharoah to let the Israelites go. But there is an irony here, because it is precisely the limitation of that kind of power that has led to the current divine predicament—the power of the awesome plagues still doesn’t lead to the faith that God seeks to instill in the people.
Moses’s response to God focuses on God’s desire to be powerful and to be seen as powerful. Moses alerts God to the fact that God’s name is bound up with the people of Israel. If, after raising them up out of Egypt vekhochacha (“in Your might”), God kills them in the wilderness, the nations will attribute their slaughter not to God’s power but to God’s powerlessness.
If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, “It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.” (Num. 14:15-16)
Overt signs of power will only convey God’s powerlessness. So what will convey God’s power? Moses gives God an alternate path to follow, a path that is true to God’s own attributes. Moses says:
Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance [koach] be great, as You have declared, saying, “The Lord! slow to anger [erech apayim] and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgressions; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Num. 14:17-18)
The enumeration of God’s attributes echoes Exodus 34:6-7, after the sin of the golden calf. So Moses seems to know that in moments of great tenuousness in the relationship with Israel, God’s attributes—with their unique balance of love and punishment—can be called upon to help restore the relationship. But the piece of Moses’s plea which intrigues me most deeply is when Moses prays “yigdal na koach adonai” (I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great). The new Jewish Publication Society translation translates koach as forbearance, patience, in keeping with the commentary of Rashbam, who writes “erech apayim.” Rashbam cites Proverbs 16:32 to demonstrate the meaning of koach in this context: “Better to be forebearing [erech apayim] than mighty [gibor], To have self-control than to conquer a city.”
While the proverb contrasts forbearance with might, I’d like to suggest that Rashbam’s commentary leads us to understand forbearance as the mightiest form of might. If we go back to God’s original quandary, we see that there are times when the mighty expression of might cannot be effective, so the wisdom that Moses brings—and the discreet expression of his power—is in helping God to focus on the power of this often overlooked aspect of koach—the power of being erech apayim (slow to anger). It is the koach of being slow to anger that makes reconciliation possible when all else fails.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.