“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, compassionate and merciful G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.”Exodus 34:6-7
This parsha contains the incident of the golden calf. It also contains something that is very prominent in Jewish thinking, in liturgy, and prayer: the thirteen attributes of Hashem. These thirteen attributes are the centerpiece of the Selichot service leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the yamim noraim, the days of awe.
The thirteen attributes are central to both our concept of, and our relationship to Hashem. They begin with a doubling of the Great Name. There are various reasons for this doubling; all of the reasons involve emphasis. The thirteen attributes continue with the tenet that Hashem is compassionate and merciful. This belief, this faith that Hashem is compassionate and merciful is so foundational to Jewish thought that it cannot be overstated. It is the basis for Israel’s relationship with Hashem. It is this faith in Hashem’s compassion and mercy that allows us to trust in Hashem even through the darkest of times.
And yet, that the end of the proclamation of the thirteen attributes there is a very troubling section. “He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generations.” What can this mean? How can this be an attribute of a just G-d? This is a very important question to ask, and leads us to an even deeper understanding of Hashem.
Disobeying Hashem (sin, failing to walk the path) has consequences. Loving Hashem (walking the path, following Torah) has consequences. Hashem is compassionate and merciful. This does not mean that our own actions do not have consequences. Let us look at an extreme example, a child abuser. Psychologists say that the effects of child abuse are passed on through several generations. The scars incurred in someone’s life are devastating and affect not only the abused, and the people around the abused, but the children of the abused and their children as well. Even if the abuser repents and asks forgiveness of his victim, the effects of the behavior continue on for generations.
How can a just G-d allow this? This is the ikar, the salient point. The consequences of sin are dire. Even with the forgiveness of Hashem through Yeshua our Messiah, the consequences of sin are dire. Sin is defined by Torah, so the consequences of not following Torah are dire. Hashem, in his compassion and mercy, allows the consequences of not following Torah to be dire. He allows this to teach us to not sin. A distant G-d who did not care about Israel, and us, wouldn’t bother. It would not be important to him to teach us. Whether we follow Torah or not would not matter to a distant and indifferent G-d.
But Hashem is neither distant nor indifferent. He is compassionate and gracious. So, he gave us Torah to instruct us to follow his Way. Give thanks to Hashem he is good, his mercy endures forever.