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D'var Torah: Ki Tisa

The well known story of the golden calf plays a prominent part in our reading today. As punishment for the sin of making an idol, God tells Moses that He will destroy the Israelite people and Moses will become the progenitor of a new nation. A totally appalled Moses convinces God to change His mind. (After all, he’s thinking, if he’s getting so much tsurus from 2.4 million random Israelites, what problems would he have if he had to deal with 2.4 million of them—when, oy vey, they’re all his close relatives?) So this brings up a question. When, and under what conditions, does a person get God to relent?

Jeremiah told us that there were two great intercessors among all the prophets, Moses and Samuel (Jer. 15:1). But when we examine all the stories about Samuel, we find only a single story where he has the opportunity to intercede with God to reverse a decision; this is when Saul defeats the Amalekites and disobeys God’s commands. We are not told if Samuel even tried to get God to change His decision to reject Saul; we can only infer that Samuel might have tried, as I’ll mention later. So despite what Jeremiah says about Samuel, we find no evidence of his abilities as an intercessor to get God to change His mind; however, we know that Moses certainly was a successful intercessor.

While the case of Moses as an intercessor in today’s sidra is the exemplar of a persuasive argument that gets God to repent a decision, let’s explore the larger question of whether any other cases exist in the Bible where a person gets God to change His mind. The terms nacham, “repent,” selach, “forgive,” and shuv, “turn [away]” are all used in the Bible to refer to changing one’s mind. Can we find any examples of these terms, or any others like them, being used in connection with a person addressing God, requesting God to repent a decision?

There are actually only a handful of incidents that describe God repenting a decision. Let’s take them in biblical order.

1. The Flood. Here God repents (va-yin-nachem Adonai) that He made humanity and resolves to destroy them (Gen. 6:6–7) but relents to the extent that Noah and his family are spared. But no human is involved in God’s decision. Unlike the way Bill Cosby tells the story, Noah doesn’t try to influence God in any way.

2. Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This doesn’t count as an incident, because when God tells Abraham about his plans for the cities, God apparently hasn’t yet made up His mind about their fate—after all, He hasn’t yet sent His messengers to investigate. Abraham was bargaining in advance of any decision God would later make; he didn’t ask for the future changing of God’s adverse decision; neither was any conditional repentance offered. Abraham only got God to agree to save the cities if ten righteous souls could be found; God’s messengers apparently only found Lot’s immediate family.

3. Moses’ interceding with God in the golden calf incident. Moses is actually the most successful person in getting God to change His mind, and the best example is in today’s parashah, when God tells Moses that He will destroy the people and raise up a new nation from Moses. It appears that as the archetype of the prophets, Moses has sufficient status and familiarity with God to suggest to God that He should “turn ... and repent (shuv ... v’hin-nachem)” (Ex. 32:12). Moses uses God’s pride as the convincing element in his request, saying basically that the Egyptians would believe that God only took the Israelites out of Egypt for the purpose of destroying them. And immediately after Moses makes his argument we are told, “And Adonai repented [va-yin-nachem Adonai] of the evil which He said He would do to His people” (Ex. 32:14). Not only does Moses save the people, he also saves Aaron’s life, as we learn in D’varim (Deut. 9:19–20). We don’t see evidence of Moses’ persuasive nature solely in the Torah; we also find an example in Psalms; Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses. Its superscription reads, “A psalm of Moses, the man of God.” Here the psalmist addresses God, using the same verbal formula found in our parashah, but now the text employs the imperative, emphatic form, shuvah Adonai ... v’hin-nachem (“you must turn ... and repent”) (Ps 90:13). These two instances, in Exodus and Psalms, are the only cases of those two words being used together in this fashion in the Bible.

4. Moses and Miriam’s leprosy; Moses’ banning from Canaan. One win, one loss. Sort of. In the case of Miriam, Moses only asks God to heal her, not forgive her, and God heals her after a seven-day punishment period elapses (Num. 12:14). Then in the only time Moses speaks to God about his not entering Canaan, asking to be allowed to “cross over ... and see the good land...,” God tells him “no” and not to mention the matter again (Deut. 3:26). But neither case fits our model because Moses doesn’t directly ask God to repent His decision.

5. Saul’s failure to annihilate all of the Amalekites and their possessions. Because Saul chose to spare the king and the flocks, God removed His backing of Saul as king. God tells Samuel, using the formulaic words from my earlier example in a totally different manner, nechamti ... shav (“I repent that [I chose Saul as king because he] turned back [from my instructions]”). It’s possible that Samuel may have tried to intercede with God to have that decree reversed, after all, the text tells us that after Samuel heard God’s decision to reject Saul, he cried to God all night (1 Sam. 15:11); Samuel was extremely sensitive about always having his pronouncements taken as correct; having crowned Saul as king, Samuel was probably concerned about his rejection of Saul (I guess he was thinking, how the heck do I un-anoint a king?), assuming it would not go over very well with the people. Anyway, Samuel brought God’s message of rejection to Saul. If Samuel had tried to get God to change His mind, neither is it mentioned nor did it work.

6. Requests for repentance by the prophets. These are surprisingly few, contrary to what you might think. The most obvious example is Jonah and Nineveh. Here Jonah was actually against God’s repenting, but the people repented of their own evil when they heard Jonah’s message with the result that God didn’t destroy the city. Although Jonah isn’t happy about this, he does acknowledge that this kind of repentance is in God’s nature—he says, “I knew that You are a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repent of evil” (v’nicham al ha-ra’ah) (Jonah 4:2).

What about the other prophets? Did any of them ever try to get God to change His mind? Ezekiel is dubious; he doesn’t think God is the kind to repent: “I, Adonai, have spoken; it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent; according to your ways and according to your doings, shall they judge you” (Ezek. 24:14). Jeremiah reports that God told him not to even try to get Him to repent (Jer. 15:19–20). Even in the Job story, while Job’s fortunes are eventually restored, it isn’t as a result of anyone’s request for God’s repentance.

However, there is one single prophet—just one—who rises to the level of Moses in telling God what to do. This is Amos, whom, even before “officially” becoming a prophet (which doesn’t happen until late in Chapter 7), was eager to intercede with God to protect his people. No one, except for Moses, has the audacity to tell God what God should do. But Amos is quite insistent. When Amos is shown a vision of how God planned to have locusts destroy the people’s crops, Amos appeals to God, selach-na (“forgive, please”) (Amos 7:2) and then we’re told that nicham Adonai al zot, “God repents of this.” Several verses later, God shows Amos a vision of how He intends to deliver judgment by fire; this time Amos responds, chadal-na (Amos 7:5). This expression literally means “cease!” or “stop it!” but it’s also one that a parent would use to quiet a whining kid, as in, “now cut that out!” And once again, God repents.

Amos doesn’t use exactly the same words as Moses to get God to repent but the effect is the same. While Moses uses God’s pride as part of his argument to get God to change His mind, Amos simply uses the force of his own personality, basically putting him in the same league as Moses, a status that no other prophet seems to attain. It’s a shame that we only get to read Amos as a haftarah just twice during the year; the next time comes around at the end of April with Kedoshim. So next time you hear Amos being read, pay closer attention to his words. God did.

Shabbat shalom.

February 2014

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