"And Now, Let My Lord's Power Be Great"
Summarized by Matan Glidai
Following the sin of the spies, God says to Moshe, “How long will this people provoke Me? … I will smite them … and will make of you a greater nation and mightier than them” (Bamidbar 14:11-12). In response, Moshe prays:
And now, let my Lord’s power be great, as You have spoken, saying: The Lord is long-suffering and great in loving-kindness, forgiving transgression and sin, but by no means clearing [the guilty], visiting the transgression of the fathers upon the children to the third and to the fourth generation. (Bamidbar 14:17-18)
The question that immediately arises here is why Moshe, in declaring God’s attributes, does not cite the “thirteen attributes” as God Himself stated them:
Lord, Lord, Almighty, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and great in loving-kindness and truth, holding loving-kindness for thousands, forgiving transgression, sin, and iniquity, but by no means clearing [the guilty], visiting the transgressions of the fathers upon the children and upon the children’s children to the third and to the fourth generation. (Shemot 34:6-7)
Out of the thirteen attributes enumerated by God, Moshe cites only six. Rashi cites the Gemara in Sanhedrin (111a), which teaches that when God taught Moshe the “thirteen attributes,” He showed him that they applied to transgressors, too, and Moshe applied this knowledge here in pleading for mercy for Am Yisrael. However, Rashi does not dwell on the discrepancies between the attributes in the two places. The Midrash likewise offers no comment on the differences.
The Da’at Zekenim mi-Ba’alei ha-Tosafot explains that “Lord, Lord” expresses the attribute of mercy and the attribute of strict justice, while in our parasha Moshe invokes only “Lord,” since he is appealing to the attribute of mercy alone. However, this explanation is difficult to accept, for two reasons.
First, the Gemara (Rosh ha-Shana 17b) asserts that “Lord, Lord” refers only to the attribute of mercy: “‘Lord, Lord’ – [meaning,] I am He prior to man sinning, and I am He after man sins and repents.”
Second, our parasha explicitly mentions the Name “Ado-nay,” which certainly connotes the attribute of strict justice more than it does the attribute of mercy.
Ramban, commenting on our parasha, explains that Moshe understood that the Divine attribute of justice was arranged against them and that, in view of the severity of the sin, there was no hope of invoking the attribute of mercy. Moshe did not mention “truth,” since from this perspective Am Yisrael was indeed worthy of punishment. He also omits the “Almighty Who is merciful and gracious,” since he understands that God’s response to this sin will not be seen to manifest these attributes.
We may indeed understand why the sin of the spies is viewed in a more serious light than even the debacle of the golden calf. Although the Gemara describes the latter situation in very harsh terms, comparing Am Yisrael to a bride who is unfaithful to her new husband while under the very chuppa (Shabbat 88b), it must be remembered that Am Yisrael as a nation was taking its first steps; in fact, they were still in the midst of forging the covenant with God. One of the factors in their transgression was simple inexperience – and they regretted their actions. The sin of the spies, in contrast, happened about a year later, once they had already become accustomed to God providing for their every need, and at the stage where they were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael. If God has given His people everything so that they will be able to enter the land, and they are fearful and do not rely on Him, this represents a questioning or denial of God’s power. Such people are not worthy of entering the land. Moreover, this was already a second most serious sin. God was forgiving the first time; this time the inexperience was less of a mitigating factor.
It would seem, therefore, that Moshe addresses himself here not to the attribute of mercy, but rather to the attribute of strict justice. Commenting on our verse, the Seforno writes: “‘And now, let my Lord’s strength be great’ – to overcome the attribute of justice.”
Rashbam cites, in this context, the verse, “He who is slow to anger is better than one who is valiant, and he who rules his spirit [is better] than one who captures a city” (Mishlei 16:32). The Da’at Zekenim likewise explains that Moshe refers here to overcoming anger, and cites the mishna in Avot (4:1), “Who is valiant? He who conquers his inclination.” This mishna presents the conquering of the inclination not as better than valiance, but rather as valiance itself. A true hero is not someone with much power, but rather someone who conquers his inclination.
The parasha teaches us that people attach too much importance to physical strength. This is the criterion by which the spies adopt their attitude towards Eretz Yisrael: “However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw the children of Anak there” (13:25); “…And all the people we saw in it were people of great stature” (13:32).
Am Yisrael, too, adopt physical strength as their yardstick for measuring their chances of conquering this land: “We shall not be able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (13:31). Moshe argues that the inhabitants of the land, familiar with the stories of God’s great miracles in Egypt, will interpret Am Yisrael’s punishment in the same light: “It was for lack of God’s ability to bring this nation into the land which He had promised them that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (14:16).
Moshe asks of God that He demonstrate to mankind true valiance and might by overcoming His anger – i.e., His attribute of strict justice. “And now, let my Lord’s power be great” – God’s power and strength will be enhanced in the view of mankind much more through His conquering of His anger than by slaughtering Am Yisrael in the wilderness. The Gemara (Gittin 56b) teaches: “Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘Who is like You among the gods (ba-eilim), O Lord’ – [this should be read as,] ‘You is like You among the silent ones (ba-ilmim).’” God’s greatness is manifest in His ability to hear man denouncing Him – and to remain silent.
Hence, Moshe does not mention all of the Divine attributes (of mercy) because he is not talking here about mercy. He also omits mentioning “truth” – because by the criterion of truth, Am Yisrael are deserving of death, heaven forefend. Finally, he makes no mention of “iniquity” (chata’a), since that category denotes transgressions committed by mistake or unknowingly, while here Am Yisrael acted intentionally (Yoma 36b). Moshe mentions only those Divine attributes related to overcoming anger, such as “loving-kindness” and “slow to anger,” because what he wants is for God to overcome his attribute of strict justice and to limit the punishment meted out to Bnei Yisrael.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Shelach 5754 .)