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Sukkot 5782        September 25,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach
The Torah reading we just finished is one of those readings that the sages have come back to,
over and over again, because there is so much in it that borders on the impossible to explain
easily. It takes place just after the great sin of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first
tablets of the law that Moses has brought down from Sinai. It picks up with Moses not sure
what to do anymore. The Israelites have sinned but are repentant, but Moses is not sure what
God is feeling in this moment.
At first, God just wants the people to “go away” to leave Sinai and make their way to the
promised land without God’s help. God is afraid that if the people should sin like that again,
God could not be sure how God might act in anger. Better for the people to go on without God.
Moses will have none of that. Either God leads them, or they are not leaving. Moses wants to
know God, but God tells the leader that no human can see God and live. Then how can Moses
know that God has forgiven the people? God will hide Moses in a cleft of rock and without
seeing God’s face, God says: “I will make my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim
before you the name Adonai, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” And
then comes the great revelation about God:

יְהֹוָ֣ה ׀ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃ נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙
“The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity,
transgression, and sin”
We read this verse multiple times on the High Holy Days and on every holiday when we take
out the Torah. We know the melody and we know the words, but do we fully understand what
the words mean? Christians may claim that our God is a God of Justice and punishment, but we

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don’t really see any of that here. Moses asks to understand the nature of God. God does not
expound on the divine power or strength. The power of God seems to be in God’s compassion,
God’s mercy, and God’s kindness.
It is similar in the first book of Kings, when the prophet Elijah stands on Mt. Sinai for a
revelation of God. In Chapter 19:11 we read: “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the
mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind,
splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the
wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the
earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.
Wind, earthquake and fire, all powerful forces, but God is not found there. God is in the soft
murmuring sound. There is no doubt about God’s power, but God seems to stress when God
defines the divine self, God’s mercy, and compassion. God is in the small voice of kindness.
I was fascinated this week, with the thoughts of Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Executive Director of
Arza, Reform Judaism’s Zionist Association. In AIPAC’s Rabbinic Resource Guide for this year, he
writes, “What is the appropriate balance between the need for power in order to maintain our
safety as a nation and community, and the need to ensure that any use of that power is, like
God on the High Holidays, balanced by compassion for those less powerful? … While having
power and maintaining it confidently is not something about which we can comprise, having
power doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also have compassion for the less powerful. Whether
called, “hesed,” “rachamim,” or “hemla,” our tradition teaches us that we ought to have
compassion for those who have less power than we do – including the less powerful in Israel,
and yes, the Palestinians. Having compassion needn’t diminish our position of power or
sovereignty.”
This is the crux of the debate taking place between Israelis and American Jews. What kind of a
nation do we want Israel to be? After centuries of being powerless, who can blame Israelis and
their government for wanting to use the power they now have. For the first time in 2000 years,
Jews have the power to defend ourselves. We can and have rescued Jews from danger from

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every part of our globe. We can fight not just with our military, but we have the political power
to also guide our destiny among the nations. While sometimes it does seem that there are
nations who wish to take Jewish power away from our state, after the Holocaust, it is unlikely
that Israel nor any part of the Jewish people will want to go back to being powerless again.
Having no place to go in times of trouble was a major contributing cause of the death of six
million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. We are never again going back to that position of
powerlessness on the world stage. To this day, Israel does not like to rely on any one nation as
the source of Jewish power.
But the example that God gives us in the Torah is that power is not something that is
diminished by acts of compassion. It was God’s compassion that brought our people out of
Egypt. But Egypt did not feel the compassion of God. They faced the increasing power of God
over the span of ten plagues. Only at the end did they come to understand the extraordinary
power that was arrayed against them. Only at the sea did they finally understand that the
power of Egypt was no match for the power of God. And what did God say at that moment
when the angels wanted to sing a victory song? “My creatures are dying, and you want to
sing?” For God and for us human beings, what is important is not having power, but in being
known for our compassion rather than for the power we can wield.
As Rabbi Weinberg writes, “God wants to be known, davka, for showing compassion and not for
use of force and power. If we, as human beings, are all created in the image of the divine, how
do we emulate the character trait of a God who is “full of compassion” who “shows mercy to
thousands”?
In the early days of this country, local governors used to have on the walls of their offices, a
display of weapons, rifles, pistols and all manner of bayonets and swords. The purpose of this
display was to make crystal clear the power of the officer and the power of the state that stood
behind him. This was a display of raw power. To strike fear into the heart of all who might come
to visit, to know that the owner of this home was a man of power. Any kind act would thus be
an act of charity. That is not the Jewish approach.

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The true act of power is the power not to use it. To fight does not solve problems, at best, it can
only make an enemy realize that they can’t achieve their ends through power. In Pirke Avot, the
Jewish book of ethics, we learn that the person who is strong is the one who can master his
own impulses. Acting with kindness and love is not a sign of weakness as some might say, it is
rather a sign of inner strength. It is not hard to make an enemy. It is much harder to make a
friend. This means that we should exercise our compassion far more than we should exercise
our power.
Rabbi Judah Magness, the first president of Hebrew University wrote, in 1930, “We are told
when we become the majority, we shall then show how just and generous a people in power can
be. This is like the man who says that he will do anything and everything to get rich, so that he
may do good with the money thus accumulated. Sometimes he never grows rich – he fails. And
if he does grow rich under those circumstances his power of doing good has been atrophied
from long lack of use. In other words, it isn’t only the end which for Israel must be desirable, but
what is of equal importance, the means must be conceived and brought forth in cleanliness.”
Kindness and compassion are not something we do when we have power. It is something we
must do every day we are alive. It must be part of the very essence of our being. If the day
should come when we rise to leadership and we are given great power, we will not be
overwhelmed by the power and let it go to our heads. We will fall back on what we know best,
how to be kind and compassionate.
Let us learn from our creator how to emulate our creator. Let us learn to be “merciful and
gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity,
transgression and sin, and granting pardon.” It is very true that there are still many threats to
Israel’s survival and to Jewish survival. But what will survival mean if we allow our greatest
strength to atrophy? We must never allow our people to become powerless again, but we must
also not fall prey to the lure of power.

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Let us always be known as the people who worship a God of love and kindness, who teaches us
to be merciful and compassionate. We can be powerful when we need to be, but our real
power must be in our forgiving nature.
May God show us how to display our goodness first before we display the trappings of power.
And may our kind hearts become the symbol of our people as we say ….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782