“The Eternal …said to Moses, I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now… My anger may blaze forth against them and…destroy them” (Exodus 32:9-10).
Talk about an angry, vengeful God! The Bible, after all, often talks about one. Near its beginning, after the arguably small mistake of eating off-limits fruit, God banishes Adam from the Garden of Eden and curses Adam and Eve by sentencing them to various forms of painful labour.
At the end of the Five Books, Moses is permitted to look to the promised land, his life’s work, yet “died there… at the command of the Eternal” (Deuteronomy 34:5) as a punishment for hitting a rock in a moment of anger.
The Bible may begin and end with an angry, punitive God, who also features during much of the middle Yet, Torah, we are told by Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud “…begins and ends with loving kindness: it begins with: “the Eternal God made garments for the skin of Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). It ends with: “He [God] buried him [Moses] in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6)”.
This could seem a remarkably selective act of reading from Rabbi Simlai. We have seen that God clothes Adam and Eve, while exiling and cursing them. He buries Moses – after condemning him to death outside the Promised Land.
Torah is a book and process, in which we must learn generous, kind behaviour from the text and prioritise some moments over others.
On one hand, we can wrestle with harshness in the world and recognise our anger at an angry God and a difficult text.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simlai teaches us to maintain a relationship with God and Torah, asking for kindness and justice from God and ourselves.
Benji Stanley is rabbi for young adults at the Movement for Reform Judaism