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Shiur #03: “Kel”

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The third of the thirteen attributes is that of Kel.  The immediate question that arises, of course, is why we should consider this divine Name an attribute of compassion. “Kel” is a general term referring to a divine being, and is used by both Judaism and other religions – including pagan faiths.  At first glance, we see no connection whatsoever between this reference to God and the quality of compassion or kindness.


            Alongside Tosefot’s commentary to Masekhet Rosh Hashana (17b) there appears a long annotation which addresses, among other topics, this attribute of Kel:


Kel is the attribute of strength, for with a mighty hand He prepares food for all His creatures, as it is written, ‘The cubs roar for prey, and to request their food from Kel’(Tehillim 104:21).


This explanation, however, seems difficult to understand.  It appears that Tosefot establish here two concepts.  First, they identify the term “Kel” as a reference to strength and power, leaving us to wonder why this quality ranks among the thirteen attributes of mercy.  Secondly, Tosefot claim that this quality is most clearly manifest through His provision of food to His creatures – “The cubs roar for prey, and to request their food from Kel.”  Why does specifically this phenomenon exemplify God’s unique power and might?  Why not the shattering of stone, the overturning of mountains?  Why the provision of food?  This is certainly a great miracle worthy of admiration – but how does it demonstrate strength?


            Tosefot’s remarks are based on the literal meaning of the name “Kel.”  Rashi, commenting on the verse, “Mi khamokha ba-elim Hashem” (“Who is like You among the mighty ("eilim"), O Lord!” – Shemot 15:11), writes, “Among the mighty – among the strong ones, as in ‘and he [Nevukhadnetzar] took the mighty ones ("eili") of the land’ (Yechezkel 17:13), and ‘My Mighty One ("eiyaluti") – hurry to my assistance’ (Tehillim 22:20).”  In this instance, the term el does not necessarily refer to a divine being; after all, in Rashi’s first example, the term “elei ha-aretzrefers to strong human beings, and not to God.  Similarly, the Ramban writes in his commentary to this verse that elim means “tokef ve-chozek” (“force and strength”).  This verse appears as part of shirat ha-yam, the song sung by Benei Yisrael in response to the splitting of the sea, when they witnessed the manifestation of God’s unparalleled might.  They thus exclaimed, “Who is like You among the mighty, O Lord” – meaning, among all the other forces on earth to which the nations of the world relate as powerful beings, as “elim.”  The pagans idolized all the natural forces: rain is one el; wind is another el.  All the natural forces, according to this belief, are powerful beings – but who among these resembles the one, true God?


            One of God’s names is Kel because He brings together all the forces – he is the “Elokei ha-elohim,” the powerful Being who exerts control over all other powerful beings.  One of His attributes, thus, is strength.


            But specifically from this perspective it seems difficult to understand why Kel is classified as an attribute of mercy.  This name appears to denote neither mercy nor justice.  Strength is a neutral quality, through which God can have compassion on the Israelites trapped against the sea, or visit retribution upon the pursuing Egyptian horsemen.  The attribute of mercy or justice will make use of God’s attribute of strength in order to achieve its goal.  Thus, the quality of Kel can serve the purposes of both justice and mercy.


            Chazal instituted a special berakha that one recites upon witnessing certain natural phenomena that remind him of God’s might: “Barukh she-kocho u-gvurato malei olam” (“Blessed is He whose strength and power fill the earth”).  I imagine that had I been standing on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea when God rained salt and sulfur upon Sedom and Amora, I would have recited this berakha.  The display of power by God’s attribute of justice is no less impressive than the cracks of thunder and bolts of lightning over which we recite the berakha of “she-kocho u-gvurato.”  This reinforces the question of why strength is included among the thirteen divine attributes of mercy.


            We find in the Torah an explicit reference to ko’ach, strength, in the context of God’s attributes of mercy.  In the aftermath of the sin of the spies, Moshe seeks to invoke the thirteen attributes on behalf of Benei Yisrael, and he introduces his plea by beseeching, “Ve-ata yigdal na ko’ach Hashem” – “And now, may the strength of the Lord be increased” (Bamidbar 14:17).  In our introductory shiur, we addressed the phrase, “yigdal na” (“increased”); here, we focus our attention on the term “ko’ach.”  In order to achieve the goal of the thirteen attributes – namely, forgiveness, as Moshe concludes, “you shall forgive our iniquity and our sin” (Shemot 34:9) – he asks for a display of strength, an increase of strength.  We thus have no reason to search for a different interpretation of the attribute of Kel, because this attribute of strength, koach, undoubtedly belongs to the system of divine mercy.  It behooves us, then, to try to understand what place strength assumes within the context of God’s kindness and compassion.


            I would like to propose three levels of explanation, one within the other.  These are not three separate answers to our question; rather, each represents a deeper form of the basic answer.  We will understand the attribute of divine strength in three different stages.


A. Mercy requires strength


            The very concept of strength in relation to God is perplexing.  In the human context, strength relates to a difficult undertaking, the completion of which demands considerable effort beyond one’s normal level of exertion.  But with regard to the Creator and Master of the world, every undertaking is equally simple, as His word suffices to fulfill His will – “Blessed is He who declared and the world came into being.”  The usual meaning of "strength" as applied to God is in reference to its perception by the observers; that is, His “strength” is described as such only from the perspective of how it appears to man.  Divine strength is demonstrated through phenomena that appear to us unusual, impressive and awesome.  We do not recite the blessing, “she-kocho u-gvurato malei olam” over common phenomena such as normal rainfall and ordinary winds, because from our perspective, God’s strength is not manifest through them.  But when we witness lighting and unusual storms, the manifestation of divine strength suddenly bursts forth into our awareness.  Jewish theology emphasizes that this does not entail increased exertion of effort on God’s part, but rather relates to our impression of God’s strength, which requires reciting a berakha.


            With regard to the divine attribute of Kel, by contrast, I believe that we deal with the divine attribute itself.  Here, we cannot be referring to our impression.  To the contrary, God’s granting forgiveness will not feature any impressive display; the nation will continue to exist just as it existed the day before, without any change in routine or even, perhaps, in awareness.  Moshe petitions God to increase His actual strength, because forgiveness – as opposed to earthquakes, wind and fire – truly requires strength, in a unique sense of the term.


            Implementing strict justice in response to sin does not require strength.  As we explained in our previous installment, the very occurrence of sin subjects the sinner to death.  Sin, the deviation from the divine will, divests the sinner of the very basis of his existence.  As we discussed in the context of the attribute of Havaya, sin disrupts and brings an end to the connection between natural existence and God’s bestowal of life.  Ending the existence of sin does not require any action on God’s part; rather, it demands inaction, and hence it should occur as a natural consequence.


            In the context of the thirteen attributes, mercy means not suspending punishment, but rather suspending annihilation.  In the two cases of the golden calf and the scouts, the risk that Moshe seeks to avert is the nation’s destruction – not a punishment, not even death, but rather the divine response of “I shall destroy them in an instant,” the cessation of existence.  Indeed, after God declares to Moshe, “I have forgiven as you said” (Bamidbar 14:20), He immediately proclaims the punishment He will visit upon the people – the nation’s demise in the wilderness, that they will not enter the Land of Israel.  Moshe invoked the thirteen attributes in order to avert annihilation, for, as we explained, annihilation does not signify strength; it is a natural consequence.  According to the rationale of creation, of existence that is sustained purely by the divine will, the sinner does not exist.  It might appear that annihilation is a more extreme response than a lighter punishment, but from the perspective of strength, it is much easier to implement.  Punishment – meaning, the sinner’s continued existence with a punishment – requires strength, because God must intervene to disrupt the natural condition, whereby the sinner cannot exist.  “It is not the snake that kills, but rather the sin that kills” (Berakhot 33a).  The sinner’s annihilation is the default; to the contrary, sustaining him with his sin requires special intervention, against the straightforward logic.  This is the meaning of “strength” in relation to God: the exertion of strength to oppose and overturn the natural process which God Himself established in creating the world.


            The amida prayer includes a berakha which Chazal call gevurot.[1]  What examples of God’s gevura are given in this berakha?  Does it mention the growth of vegetation, the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset?  A study of this berakha reveals that all the phenomena it lists share one property, namely, the reversal of a process that has already taken hold of a person.  First, it speaks of “somekh nofelim,” that the Almighty “supports the fallen.”  When a person falls, he is seized by the force of gravity.  In the perspective of Chazal, something that falls is, to some extent, already on the ground.  The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Kama speaks of an article that has fallen from a rooftop as a “broken vessel.”  But the Almighty, in His immense power, reverses the process – He supports the fallen.  A person falls ill, death has taken hold in his body – and the Almighty intervenes to halt the process, because He is rofei cholim (“healer of the sick”).  A person is taken prisoner, without any possibility of escape, but he then suddenly goes free, because God is matir asurim (“releases the bound”).  The natural process flows in one direction, and God’s might, His strength, overpowers it and sends it in the reverse direction.


            God’s attribute of mechayei meitim, resurrecting the dead, was selected to introduce and conclude this berakha.  A person has perished; from where will life be restored?  Death is final; there is no possibility of reversing this condition.  Life leads toward death, whereas death is not a basis for life.  But the Almighty, in His infinite strength, overcomes this process and resurrects the dead.  This is the meaning of God’s power and strength – He overpowers creation and suspends His own rules.


            This applies as well to the area of sin and forgiveness.  Sin is death; this is the established law of nature.  A person who transgresses resembles a tereifa (a person mortally wounded), whom Halakha treats as a gavra ketila, a walking corpse. A person who lacks the foundation of existence is considered dead even if he still manages to breathe.  Forgiveness, meaning, continued existence after and in spite of sin, entails the suspension of this law.  God must overpower His world and suspend its laws – the laws that He Himself had imposed – in order to forgive.  Thus, God’s power is manifest specifically through forgiveness, and not through death.


            In summary, forgiveness means God’s overpowering the sin and the current condition of the individual, in order to continue sustaining him and allowing him to exist.


B. Forgiveness requires strength to overpower not only the world, but God Himself.


            The law that we described, whereby sin amounts to annihilation, does not only apply to the natural world, like gravity.  Even if we claim, as the Rambam does, against accepted modern science and philosophy, that natural laws reflect divine wisdom, there is nevertheless no logical impediment to their suspension.  God’s will that the waters of the Sea of Reeds should stand as a wall does not contradict God’s divinity, even if it constitutes a temporary deviation from the eternal divine wisdom.  Therefore, if we beseech God to defeat a certain enemy, and He responds and destroys our foes, such as the instantaneous obliteration of the mighty Assyrian army, we have no reason to say that this required a special degree of strength on God’s part.  The One who told water to lie flat can tell water to stand; the One who told oil to burn can tell water to burn.


            Such is not the case, however, with regard to sin.  One cannot say in the same casual way that He who told goodness to exist can tell evil to exist.  The negation of evil is not simply the willful decision of God, which He can then choose to overturn.  Rather, it is a law that reflects divine goodness itself.  When we request forgiveness, we ask that the Good should sustain Evil.  This requires, as it were, a change in God’s essence – obviously without God ceasing to be the absolute good.  God is good, His will is good, and to exist means to be attached to good.  But in order to sustain a person who sins, God must overpower the principles of goodness, meaning, He must act against Himself, as it were.  Compassion, in this instance, works against goodness – which is inherently paradoxical, as goodness subdues goodness.


            On this basis I would like to reach a practical conclusion relevant to the intention and awareness required during prayer.  When a person asks for compassion with the divine Name of Kel, invoking the attribute of strength, he must be aware of the magnitude of the strength required.  The supplicant asks that God should overpower goodness.  He requests not merely that a certain attributed be employed; rather, he asks that a divine attribute be suspended.  In order to have mercy, God must restrain His own attributes.  Chazal (Berakhot 7a) use the expression, “she-yikhbeshu rachamekha et ka’askha” – “that Your compassion shall subdue Your anger.”  The term kibush (“subdue”; literally, “capture”) is borrowed from the realm of warfare; the Sages allude here to a kind of internal battle waged among the Almighty’s various attributes.  The “I shall annihilate them in an instant,” to which Chazal here refer as “anger,” is the original attribute, it precedes compassion, and thus the compassion must “capture” the anger, like an outsider who comes to capture a city.  We are drowning under the weight of our sins, and we ask not that somebody should take us out of the water, but rather that the water itself should send us out.  We ask God, who is good, to lift us, with the added weight of our sins, onto the waves of goodness.  It is the good itself that drowns us – and we ask that the good will now save us.  Strength, therefore, expresses the suspension of God’s own attributes.


            When submitting this request, one must have its temporary nature in mind.  If I would ask for continued existence in my current condition for all time, this would be impossible.  If I turn to goodness and say, “Accept me as I am now, in my present state, without judgment, without discernment” – such a request cannot have any meaning.  This is not a request for compassion, but rather a request for indifference.  When we discuss the attribute of erekh apayim (“patience”), we will see the clear distinction between compassion and indifference.  It is inherently contradictory to ask from goodness to disregard one’s sin and condition of sinfulness.  No such divine attribute can possibly exist.  We can ask God’s attributes of mercy to allow us to exist temporarily, until we repent.  This constitutes an important component of the attribute of “strength,” that we realize its intrinsically temporary nature.  God’s permanent condition, which does not require strength, is one of goodness sustaining goodness.  The use of “strength” signifies special effort, and it is therefore necessarily limited in time, until the point when God must no longer employ this strength, and returns to His position of “rest.”  Not that the Almighty needs rest, God forbid, but the very image of strength reminds us that this request asks for something out of the ordinary, for an internal struggle, and therefore a promise for this struggle’s end must accompany the request.  We turn not to God’s existence to sustain us, but rather to His strength.  We ask, “Act to sustain me, even though this attribute is in opposition to the absolute good.”


C. Everything we have presented until now explains why strength is needed for God to have mercy and forgive, why strength is a critical component of divine compassion.  But the attribute of strength occupies an independent place in the list of God’s attributes of mercy, which would appear to indicate that strength itself constitutes an attribute of mercy, and not merely as a medium that is necessary to facilitate mercy.  In this section, we will try to understand why strength is included among the attributes of mercy.


            In our attempt to explain the concept of “strength” in relation to God, we sought to identify a point of “difficulty” that required the use of strength.  Since God can never find something “difficult,” the concept remains somewhat metaphoric.


            For God, strength means creativity.  Strength is not needed to keep something in its current state; rest is the state of the absence of applied strength.  In order to achieve something new, which does not exist in the present state, strength must be employed.  God is absolute perfection, whose existence incorporates everything that exists.  No strength is required in order to exist, to exist as absolute perfection.  Therefore, the Aristotelian God, who is inherently perfect and has no purpose outside Himself, is in a perpetual state of absolute rest.  But the divine decision to create a world outside of Himself, meaning, to achieve an objective outside of His perfection, requires the use of strength.  We do not pose here the question of why, why the absolute perfection would seek to achieve a purpose outside of itself, a purpose that in no way contributes to its perfection.  We know that this is what He wanted.  Creation ex nihilo, the addition of something based on nothing that previously existed, means divine strength.  Just as allowing the current situation to continue does not require strength, similarly, actualizing potential does not, in God’s terms, require strength.  But in order to create something from nothing, in order to create a world that had no existence whatsoever in that which preceded it, meaning, in God Himself – divine strength is needed.


            In the writings of the Rishonim, especially in Rav Yitzchak Arama’s Akeidat Yitzchak, but also, to a certain extent, in the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, the idea of reward and punishment, the system of divine justice, is built into the nature of the world.  Reward and punishment are ingrained within nature.  The Akeidat Yitzchak distinguishes between two different kinds of nature: a “blind” nature, the familiar laws of physics, and an “intelligent” nature, the laws of reward and punishment.  In the first system, fire burns both the flesh of the righteous and the flesh of the wicked, whereas according to the second system, fire consumes the wicked but never touches the righteous.  According to this outlook, the reward for the righteous and the punishment for the wicked do not come from God, ex nihilo.  Rather, they grow out of the natural order, “something from something,” like fire evolves from a match.  Just as the fire produced from a match is not cause for amazement, so should we not react with surprise upon seeing death for the wicked and life for the righteous.


            Therefore, if we were truly righteous, our lives would evolve from the forces latent within the world, the fixed laws of nature.  We would live on the basis of our own efforts.  But if we are not righteous, and we depend upon kindness and compassion to live, then we require a new creation ex nihilo, for there is no basis for our lives in the reality of the world.  We speak here not of the preservation or even natural development of that which exists, but rather of a new creation – and this means the exertion of strength on the part of the Creator.  God’s strength comes to sustain that which the laws of heaven and earth are incapable of sustaining.  Justice is built within the world, and kindness comes from outside the world; justice is within, and kindness comes from without.  We may therefore conclude that the use of strength, in this sense, is always an act of kindness; essentially, it is an attribute of kindness.  The destruction of Sedom does not, from God’s perspective, involve the exertion of strength, because the world itself, as it was created, destroys Sedom.  If God’s strength is exerted, it means that He creates something from nothing; He makes something entirely new, which is, in essence, kindness.  As we explained in the first installment in this series, “Olam chesed yibaneh” – the act of creation is the quintessential act of kindness.


            Let us now translate this concept into the intention of the worshipper.  When we call the Name of Kel, we say that the world is deficient, it cannot exist according to the original system of creation.  It requires the exertion of power from the outside, an additional creation.  The world – at least my small world – does not justify its existence and does not warrant its continued existence.  Imagine a person purchases a new watch which stops functioning after one hour.  He returns to the watchmaker and learns that the watch does not require any repair, but must rather be attached to a source of electricity; it cannot operate on its own, without power from an external source.  This is precisely the situation of a person who sins.  He has no basis for his continued existence, and thus requires additional power from an outside source, that is, from God.  This is not because the watch – the human being – is defective, but rather because the human being, by sinning, has ruined his internal power source.  Sin ruins the divine creation, and at that point we must turn to the Creator – whose creation was wrecked due to no fault of His own – and demand that He provide that which is missing, to send a current of power that will enable us to exist.  What gall on our part!  Strictly speaking, the “watchmaker” should simply tell us to fix ourselves.  But we tell Him, “The problem cannot be fixed, at least not right now, and You, the Creator, must ensure that it works anyway.”


            It is possible to make such a request because there is a covenant, because this is His will.  Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing.  The Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur and said, “This is My attribute – I continue to create; I am the power source for the world, and not only its initial Creator.”


In conclusion, I would like to add one more point regarding the relationship between strength and compassion.


            We often tend to associate compassion with weakness.  A person walking in the street who sees a mendicant beggar naturally feels compassion.  The common perception, which has its roots in Greek philosophy but finds expression as well in contemporary culture, views compassion as a person’s emotional reaction, rather than a willed response.  The pedestrian does not decide to assist the poor man; he is compelled, forced against his will, by the emotion that overcomes him.  He does not have the strength to walk by the man without helping, even if he wanted to.  The person thinks that had he only been stronger, more resolute, he would pass by the beggar without assisting, but he is weak and incapable of doing so.  We draw an association between softness and compassion.  The tough, strong person is not compassionate.  We describe a person who does not show compassion with the term “hiksha et libo” – “hardened his heart.”  I realize that intellectually the readers do not, thank God, agree with this perception, but the sense most of us feel in the heart is that compassion involves weakness.  The extreme manifestation of this perception occurs when one prefers the cruel, indifferent person who acts as he sees fit without surrendering to compassion or taking into account his feelings of mercy and kindness.


            The divine attribute of Kel teaches us that the precise opposite is true: strength manifests itself through the attribute of kindness, through compassion.  True, in some instances one knows that goodness warrants being strict, but he yields because he does not have the strength to refuse.  But this is neither the true attribute of mercy, nor the attribute to which we appeal when we call in the Name of Hashem and the other attributes of mercy.  God’s compassion is one of strength.  God’s judgment is simple; it requires no proactive effort on His part, but rather that He allow things to run their natural course.  Having pity means knowing that there is justice but acting differently – not because of fear or weakness, or because one does not have the strength to follow strict justice, but rather because he has the strength to act kindly.  God always has the strength to execute justice, but He instead uses His strength to suspend and overpower justice, to restrain His anger.


            From God’s attributes we can learn an important, practical lesson regarding kindness.  When a person performs an act of kindness, he must feel that he restrains justice and subdues it to another ideal.  Justice is truth – but kindness is also truth, a different kind of truth, and we choose to suspend the former in favor of the latter.  Only in this manner can we speak of acting kindly, and only in this way – and this is critically important in terms of the value of acts of kindness – does the act of kindness fulfill the requirement of “ve-halakhta bi-drakhav,” following in God’s ways.  Kindness does not resemble divine kindness if it does not stem from a clear, conscious decision, if it does not involve embracing an ideal and identifying with it.


            This is the meaning of the verse, “The cubs roar for prey, and to request their food from Kel.”  This analogy serves to emphasize the need for God’s kindness when the natural “strength” in the world does not suffice.  The lion cubs are strong, the kings of the animal world, but it seems that their power does not always suffice to secure their prey.  They therefore ask to receive it from God, from outside the natural realm and the power latent within it.  From the perspective of the attribute of justice, the lion is naturally drawn to prey on the lamb.  But in some cases nature is not sufficient, and the strength and roar of the lions do not succeed in securing food, until they invoke divine strength.  This is the attribute of strength – the strength required to suspend the system of justice in the world and to grant kindness.


            Havaya, the first of the thirteen attributes, is that of “the world is built through kindness.”


            Havaya, the second attribute, is that of “the world of sin is built through kindness.”


            Kel, the third attribute, means the suspension of justice and the strength given by the good to sustain evil.


[1] As we have seen, Chazal use the terms koach and gevura interchangeably.