When Moshe sent forth representatives of each of the tribes to reconnoiter the land, they returned with a damning report which destroyed the people’s confidence and faith in God. True to their behavior in the desert, the people complained bitterly, denouncing God, and his agents, Moshe and Aharon. This rebellion became so severe that God contemplated destroying the people. Moshe had to talk God down from this severe reaction and then used a formulaic prayer presented to him by God after the last major conflagration, the episode of the Golden Calf, to assuage God’s anger.
In the episode of the golden calf, God tendered to Moshe thirteen attributes of God to recite in tense situations: “The Lord, the Lord, a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger (erekh apaim), and abounding in kindness and truth (emet), keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime trespass and offense, yet He does not entirely acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) When, however, Moshe used this formula to rectify the situation of the spies, he used an abbreviated form: “The Lord is slow to anger (erekh apaim) and abounding in kindness, bearing crime and trespass, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of the fathers with the sons with the third generation and the fourth” (Numbers 14:18), avoiding the use of the word “truth” (emet)
This lacuna prompted the following midrashic anecdote: And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. (Exodus 34:6-7) What [aspect of God’s being] did Moses see [prompting him to bow down]? Rabbi Hanina ben Gamla said: He saw long-suffering [as one of God’s attributes]. The Rabbis say: He saw [God’s attribute of] truth. It has been taught [in a Baraita] in agreement with the one who holds that ‘he saw long-suffering,’, as it was taught: When Moshe ascended on high, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and writing the words ‘long-suffering’. Moshe said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe! [You mean] Long-suffering [exclusively] for the righteous?’ God replied: ‘Even’ for the wicked.’ Moshe urged: ‘Let the wicked perish!’ [God replied: Now let’s see if that is really what you really want’. ‘When Israel sinned,’ He said to him, ‘didn’t you urge Me, [Let Your] long-suffering be [exclusively] for the righteous?’ ‘Master of the Universe!’, said Moshe, ‘but didn’t You assure me, even for the wicked!’ So, it is written: “And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying. (Adapted from Sanhedrin 111a-b)
What lies behind this discussion? Emet or truth is an absolute and exacting quality. It leaves no room for considering other deliberations. According to this midrash, Moshe, affirmed the primacy of “truth” over “long suffering”, a quality of mercy. Justice required “truth” and the guilty party should face the consequences. God has to remind Moshe that his charges, the children of Israel, at one time or another, might require the divine quality of “long suffering” to supersede that of “truth”.
Two things amaze me about this story. The first is that it turns the biblical story on its head. Instead of Moshe talking God down from destroying the people, it has God teaching Moshe of the quality of mercy. More important, though, this story reminds us that doing what is just is not something objective. Different factors must be considered in the process. We sometimes forget this and act like Moshe in this story. It is a good thing that God reminds us that true justice is more than just attaining the facts of the matter; it is about doing what is good and right as well.