YHWH, slow to anger and full of loving-kindness; forgiving sin and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This week’s Torah portion includes a section of Torah that seems to repeat itself. 

Scene: The scouts have just returned from visiting the land with a negative impression of Eretz Yisrael, and the people are verging on outright rebellion against Moses. God responds to Moses in what feels like a dysfunctional family argument and angrily threatens to wipe out the wandering Israelites. Moses, having previously (Exodus 34: 6-7) learned how to appeal to God for forgiveness during the Golden Calf incident, recites what at first glance, appear to be the very words he used to ask God for forgiveness at that formative time.   

At a second glance, there is a significant difference between the two versions. In Exodus, the words Moses recites have come to be known as the 13 Attributes of God. The version we read this week is in essence a Cliffs Notes reading of the 13 Attributes. What is most interesting is that the section that becomes stressed in our version is the phrase “slow to anger.” In the 13 Attributes version, we have grace, compassion, mercy, truth, and kindness, most of which are left out in this version. Aren’t those qualities deserving of our attention? What is so special about being “slow to anger” and why is it that being “slow to anger” would be singled out in this case as the most important of the Thirteen Attributes? 

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, opined that this omission was intentional. The qualities of compassion and graciousness that could be applied to the Israelites in their infancy when they, out of desperation and fear, created an idol, do not apply to the scouts. While the Israelites who created the Golden Calf sinned against the Holy One of Blessing, Levi Yitzchak teaches that the scouts and the people who believed them, sinned against themselves. “How can the Eternal One have compassion and grace for people who have no compassion and grace for themselves?” Levi Yitzchak seems to ask. Perhaps the only thing that Moses has the right to ask for in this case is that God is “slow to anger.”

The Thirteen Attributes are a high bar, even for God. When compassion and grace are just too much to ask of ourselves, maybe we can just ask that we, like God, be “slow to anger.”

“May I be slow to anger,” is a wonderful phrase to utter quietly when we find our own ire rising. Perhaps in creating the modest goal of being “slow to anger,” we can create a more compassionate and gracious world. 

May this Shabbat bring the blessings of peace, compassion, grace, mercy, truth, and kindness, with no trace of anger, into all of our homes.

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro

Listen to Adonai, Adonai (The Thirteen Tributes); composed by Max Helfman; performed by Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro