We are coming up on the traditional time for celebrating the giving of the Ten Dibrot or utterances (usually translated as commandments). Naturally, much has been written about these instructions, utterances, mitzvot (many names because they are not well understood at all) as we struggle to pattern our lives with something that is clearly important to so many faith traditions.
So I will focus on a small part that I think has often been misunderstood. Let’s start with a reminder out of Psalms: Hodu L’Ad-nai, ki tov, ki l’Olam chasdo. Be grateful to Ad-nai, for G-d is good, G-d’s mercy extends through all time and space. Wow. Pretty powerful statement. Okay, so if G-d is goodness and merciful, forgiving and all those good things and we are created in G-d’s image — that Genesis thing — then it is reasonable to believe that G-d loves us. Love is wanting the best for the object of one’s love. Since we are all created in G-d’s image and G-d loves the world (since we are all G-d’s creation), then it follows that G-d’s love is and must be unconditional.
So how do we understand Exodus 20:5-6 and Deuteronomy 5:9-10, “for I, Ad-nai, your G-d am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6. And showing mercy to thousands of those who love me, and keep my commandments”? [Jewish Publication Society translation with Ad-nai for L-rd]
Well, let’s look at two Hebrew words that might have a somewhat different meaning than this translation implies. They are kana and pokeid — “jealous” and “visiting upon.”
Kana is also zealous, passionate. Pokeid is an interesting word, associated with ordering, as in official, officer, clerk and it is what G-d does when Sarah becomes pregnant — G-d “pokeids” Sarah in remembering the promise of giving her a child. So perhaps a better way to look at this line (repeated verbatim in Deuteronomy) is to consider pokeid as remembering or even “taking into account.”
Another word to consider is sonai, usually taken as hate. In Torah, sonai is used to refer to the second choice (as in Leah). You might think that Jacob “hated” Leah because he so loved Rachel — but Rachel is buried along the road where she dies and Leah is in the family tomb in the cave of Machpelah, and it is next to her that Jacob wants to be buried when he instructs Joseph to bury him there, not in Egypt. Leah is specifically mentioned as why Jacob wants to be buried there. So there is clearly not a hate relationship between them. However, she was second and that caused considerable relationship damage in the family (another column, another time).
When we look at these understandings, the line out of Torah becomes: “for I, Ad-nai, your G-d, am a passionate G-d, taking into account the iniquity of the parents upon their children [even] to the third and fourth generation of them that place me second (or lower) in their lives; 6. And showing mercy to thousands of those who love me, and keep my commandments.” Placing G-d second could mean putting their own ego above G-d or G-d’s creation (life).
For me, that reading fits much better with a compassionate, loving G-d.