Here’s a good Torah trivia question: How do we know there was a river flowing down Mt. Sinai? Because it says so in the Torah (Devarim 9:21).
In the context of describing the events surrounding the Golden Calf, Moshe makes a brief reference to the water supply that existed at the mountain, in the context of talking about a number of episodes during which the people angered G-d and caused Him to want to destroy them.
On Tisha B’Av, I led a group conversation about what mourning for the Temple means to us today. One of the participants noted in passing that a god who is a “punishing god” is very unappealing nowadays. And while there is certainly an element of emotional truth to this, it is also true that many people who otherwise have very little to do with observant Judaism still find themselves in the synagogue on Yom Kippur — not because Yom Kippur is a day of punishment, but rather because it is a day of atonement, the day in which our sins our forgiven so we need not be punished.
Of course, anyone who has ever studied in a yeshiva knows that the concept of punishment is central to a Torah worldview. Think about the concepts of karet (excision from G-d and from the nation), being chayav malkos (deserving of lashes), chayav chatas (needing to bring a sin offering), or chayav misah (deserving of death) whether in the hands of the court or in the hands of G-d.
While these punishments are not carried out by man in our times, and while we ought to do our best to not play G-d and suggest why bad things happen to decent people, I wonder how much G-d’s wrath flares up today.
And why wouldn’t it? After all, how many times in these parshas does Moshe tell the people things like, “You angered G-d,” and “you’ve rebelled against G-d since the day I first met you?” Have things changed so drastically since that time?
Maybe we’re not turning to other gods in the numbers we once were, but the influence of the world around us is palatable. With all the good we tout ourselves for doing, we are a far cry from the beautiful society described in the Torah.
We look out for the poor, but we are selective. We are careful about what goes into our mouths, but not what comes out of our mouths. We claim to be modest in how we live, but look at the ads for multi-thousand dollar sheitels and the construction to mammoth-size mansions going in our neighborhoods — just to bring two examples. (One of the more profound insights I’ve seen on this idea is written in the Kli Yakar Devarim 2:3, when he talks about how Eisav perceives us. It is worth looking up.)
If our G-d is One Who punishes, we have to ask ourselves why. Meaning, can’t He be forgiving, and just be all about love?
Our view is that He is forgiving. But forgiveness comes after a process we call teshuvah (recognition of sin and repenting from it — literally “returning” to G-d). Why is teshuvah necessary?
While I can’t speak for G-d, I’ll give a little human example, to at least try to understand.
A parent loves his or her child unconditionally. But what happens when that child destroys everything the parent holds near and dear? A reputation that took a lifetime to build: destroyed. The lifestyle the family has built and modeled: destroyed. Decided these parents are no longer my parents, but that others are my parents: a lifelong relationship is now devastated and decimated. What is the parent to do?
Perhaps the parent doesn’t want to see his or her child die. That would be too painful. Perhaps the parent is willing, however, to bide the time, ready, with open arms, for the day the child is ready to return.
Is it the job of the parent to conform to the new life-choices of the child? Isn’t the parent’s attachment to the past and to tradition and mesorah something more valuable than a new-fangled perhaps (though certainly not always) anger-driven approach to life and G-d?
G-d has reasons for wanting us to follow Him, but the parent parable can at least help us understand why He might get upset. Imagine denying G-d’s existence, imagine rejecting Him when He made you and gave you a world to enjoy, imagine saying His rules are unimportant.
Moshe’s reminders to the people are a way of saying, “Look. G-d will always be there waiting for you to return. He’ll never destroy you completely. But sometimes a cooling off period will be necessary, because things have gotten out of control on your end.” All the promises of good times on account of proper observance of the Torah are actually incredible promises — and were we to merit those on account of our behavior, our lives would be truly incredible.
This is not to suggest a reason for why our people have suffered at the hands of horrific enemies over the course of millennia. G-d could have also had other ways of keeping our numbers down (see Devarim 7:7). But it is to suggest that we have a job to see G-d’s hand in our lives, and not to disrespect it, or heaven forfend, reject it.
Think about this: Our people arrived at a mountain in a dry, uninhabitable desert, where they would be for close to a year. They had no perceivable source of water. And there G-d made a river run from the top of the mountain. Does that not show how much G-d cares?
We must see the gifts He gives us all the time. If we don’t, we will have missed out on what makes life meaningful — seeing G-d at every turn.