What’s God like?

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By Bill Dauster

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35.

What is God like? In this week’s Torah reading, after the Israelites’ colossal mess-up with the Golden Calf, Moses wanted to know. Looking for reassurance, Moses asked God, “Please, let me see you.” With the patience of a parent for a child’s foolish request, God explained, “No person can see Me and live.”

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But God did the next best thing. God told Moses what God is like. And through the Torah, God told us about God’s 13 attributes. God reassured us that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But God also warned us that God does remit all punishment.

The Sifre taught that these attributes tell us how we should live. Deuteronomy enjoins people “to walk in all God’s ways.” The Sifre taught that to walk in God’s ways means to be, in the words of God’s attributes, “compassionate and gracious.”


The Jerusalem Talmud read God’s attribute of forgiveness to tell us what will happen on the Day of Judgment. The Jerusalem Talmud taught that if the greater part of one’s record consists of honorable deeds, one will inherit the Garden of Eden. But if the greater part consists of transgressions, one will inherit Gehenna. What if one’s deeds are equally divided? Rabbi Eleazar said that if a person is lacking in good deeds, God will give the person one of God’s own, so that the person’s merits will outweigh the person’s sins. Rabbi Eleazar read the words “abounding in kindness and faithfulness” to teach that God tips the scales in favor of mercy so that we can inherit the Garden of Eden.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan read the 13 attributes to teach us how to pray. Rabbi Yohanan said that God drew a prayer shawl around God’s self like a prayer leader and showed Moses the order of prayer. God told Moses that whenever Israel sins, we should recite God’s 13 attributes, and God will forgive us.

And Rav Judah interpreted the words “a God compassionate and gracious” to teach that with the 13 attributes, God made a covenant that Jews will not be turned away empty-handed when we recite them, for soon thereafter in our Torah reading, God says, “Behold I make a covenant.”

Rabbi Isaac Luria thus suggested that we recite the 13 attributes before the open ark in a communal plea for forgiveness. So we recite three times the 13 attributes after taking the Torah from the ark on Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah.

But Rabbi Elazar was concerned that the Torah here reports that God both forgives iniquity and does not remit all punishment. How can God both forgive and not forgive? Rabbi Elazar resolved the apparent contradiction by teaching that God absolves those who repent and does not absolve those who do not repent. Therefore, both “repentance” and “absolve” were mentioned at Mount Sinai.

When we recite God’s attributes on the High Holy Days, we don’t read the whole list. We recite all the attributes up to where God forgives iniquity, transgression and sin. But we leave off the part where God tells us that God does not remit all punishment.

The Rabbis cut off God’s self-description before God talks about not remitting all punishment. They thus edited the verse to focus on — and to encourage — God’s forgiveness.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us, too, as we think about how we should live. When cases come along where we can either forgive or not forgive, perhaps we need to cut off the question at the point where we ask ourselves whether we can forgive.

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer since 1986, has written Wikipedia articles on the54 Torah portions.

Questions to discuss

  • What do you think God is like?
  • How can knowing what God is like help us figureout how to live?
  • How much do we want God to enforce justice versus how much do we want God to be forgiving?

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