The God of Mercy

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During the 17th thru early 20th centuries there was a body of “scholarly” literature coming from the Chrisitan community called Christian polemics in which scholars would try to describe the difference between Christianity and Judaism at the expense of Judaism. They would portray the Christian God as the God of love, while the Jewish God was the God of vengeance, wrath and anger who punished those who disobeyed while rewarding those who obeyed.

While certainly upon reading the New Testament, one might say that the God portrayed through the life of Jesus was a God of love, although there was one thing these scholars failed to consider which was that the God of Jesus was the God of the Jews, as Jesus was Jewish. The God of Jesus was not the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but was Adonai.

There is no question that the god portrayed in our Hebrew bible is a god who leads God’s people into battle against its enemies. There is also no question that the Jewish god, as portrayed in the bible and in the rabbinic literature, is a god who rewards those who obey and punishes those who disobey God’s laws.

However, there is another middot, quality, of God’s which is overlooked when emphasizing these aspects and that is the middot of Rahmanut, Mercy. Our God is a merciful god, and it is this aspect of God that transcends and drives all others.

The biblical prophet Hosea describes this aspect of God when sharing his own life story with the Jewish community during the 8th century B.C.E. He was preaching to the community living in northern Israel which was under siege by the Assyrians. He told them that just as he extended forgiveness and mercy to his unfaithful wife, accepting her back regardless of the pain she caused him, so too would God extend forgiveness and mercy to God’s people of Israel who strayed from God by worshipping idols.

What other god, other than a merciful god, would command people to offer peace to an enemy before attacking it, as read in last week’s Torah portion Shoftim, or to be considerate of the rights of a woman captured in war as described in this week’s Torah portion Ki Tetzei? None!

If the reward and punishment theological system, as described in the bible and rabbinic literature, is the actual system under which we live, then we need to know that the reason why God punishes and rewards is because God loves us, as a parent would punish and reward its child, out of love that the child would learn from this and be a better and improved person.

Also, if God is a God of war, as stated in the Song of the Red Sea in Exodus, God is such because God, out of love, wants His people of Israel to be successful in battle in order to secure its future as a people and on its own land.

This God of the Jewish people must be merciful because without mercy the entire system of Judaism, its prayers, rituals, and traditions, all fall apart. If I would wake up on the morning of Friday September 15th with the revelation that God shows no mercy or forgiveness, I will ask the presidents of my congregation to send out an email blast to the entire congregation to stay home for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur for without these qualities of God’s there is no reason to do Teshuvah, repentance, because you can change, repent, all you want to but nothing will help you.

Every day during morning prayers, on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, and certainly on Yom Kippur the 13 attributes of God’s Rachmanut, mercy, are recited and chanted: “L‑rd, L‑rd, benevolent G‑d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and He pardons.”

These 13 attributes of God’s mercy are the very foundation of our relationship with the almighty. Without them we have no relationship because then it all comes from God but nothing from us to God. If there is no mercy, then it really doesn’t matter how sinful we are because nothing can allow us to correct the sins we have committed because there is no forgiveness.

If our God is not merciful, forgiving and loving, then Yom Kippur is a worthless day because there would then be nothing we could do or say that would make a difference.

This theology underlies so much of our literature and the teachings of our tradition.

Take another prayer, Unetanneh Tokef. “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be, who shall live and who shall die, who shall see ripe age and who shall not…” As you recite this list of what can happen to each of us during the year, it seems so hopeless for it is saying that our very future is being sealed on this day until those closing words of the prayer: “But repentance, prayer and charity can temper the judgment’s severe decree.”

These final words give us hope and why: because they tell us that there is mercy and forgiveness on God’s part as we work together to create our futures. What we do does matter, and this is what Judaism is all about and who our God is: A God who loves us and shows mercy and forgiveness despite all our failings and shortcomings.

O God of mercy and forgiveness, be with us as we approach the holy days ahead. Place within our minds, hearts and souls the faith that regardless of how deep into the valley we might have fallen, we can always rise up to the top again because Your hand will be reaching down to us to bring us up to bathe in the light of Your love which is eternal. Amen.

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