Kee Tavo: On ascribing human emotions to God

Kee Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Isaiah 60:1-22

This week's Torah reading features an extremely unusual, perhaps unique, ascription of emotion to God. Near the close of his description of the horrifying fate that we earn when we turn from the way of the Torah, Moses tells us that, if we persist in evil, "it shall be that, as God rejoiced over you to benefit you and to increase you, so shall God rejoice over you to waste you and to destroy you, and to remove you from the land which you are now coming to possess" (Deut. 28:63).

I know of no other place at which we hear that God rejoices over destroying us if we do evil.

Usually, the Bible envisions God as rejoicing over the blessings that flow to us when we do good (Deut. 30:9), long-suffering and patient with our evil deeds (Exodus 34:6) and angry at our arrogant acts (Deut. 29:19). Often, the description of God engineering the consequences of sin appears without ascribing any emotion to the Deity (Deut. 7:10).

Rashi typically makes cryptic, terse comments on a biblical verse, without explaining what motivated the comment. Only after we have studied the verse, and discovered some difficulty in it, do we understand that Rashi has already answered our question. Rashi apparently removes our difficulty when he identifies the second appearance of the word "to rejoice" as causative, so that it means: "so shall God cause your enemies to rejoice." As in the rest of the Torah, so too here, God does not "rejoice" over punishing our sins. Using our enemies as a vehicle of punishment, God allows them to rejoice.

Onkelus and other commentators accept that the verb indeed means "will rejoice." For them, the difficulty remains.

Rationalist commentators have an additional problem: They believe that we should not ascribe any emotion to God. Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, wrote that any biblical description of God's emotions amounts to a mere metaphor.

In reality, when we do evil, we set up the mechanisms of evil in the world. When we suffer the consequences of that evil, the Bible may poetically say, "God has become angry with us." Effective poetical language, but not strictly accurate. Maimonides does not, in the passages that I know, specifically discuss our verse, but I imagine he would say, "poetical language. If a human brought about such destruction, we should imagine that the human rejoiced at destroying his enemies."

Another rationalist commentator, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, does discuss this verse. Where the Bible says that God rejoices to destroy, he says it suggests "that you should not think that it will damage God or that he will mourn, similar to `if you become righteous, what can you give him?'" (Job 35:7). As Avraham ibn Ezra sees it, the path of good benefits us, but if we follow and prosper, or stray and fail, it works out equally well for God.

In our own times, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asks whether it makes sense to insist that God has no emotions. Why cannot God care for the creatures, mourn for their failures and feel frustration at their misuse of freedom? Perhaps the Bible uses emotional language, and this language comforts us, because it describes something real.

Think about this dilemma. We feel comforted by the thought that God loves us. We want unconditional love, whether we deserve it or not. And yet we want to think of God as fair, just, honest, good. The same dilemma applies to human love. A 17th-century English poet, Richard Lovelace, wrote: "I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honor more." Mere sanctimony, do you think, or would you prefer that someone would betray honor to love you? Do we want that of God?

As for our own emotions, perhaps we should follow the precise formulation of the prophet Micah: "Do justice and love kindness" (6:8). We should do justice without rejoicing but love doing kindness.