In this week’s parshah, Ki Tisa, we consider what it means for God to be described as “womb-full” and capable of “taking deep breaths.”
Ki Tisa contains the famous narrative of the golden calf. While Moshe is at the top of Mount Sinai learning from God, the people become anxious at the absence of their leader. Their anxiety causes them to fall back on the forms of idol worship they once knew as slaves in Egypt. As such, they call on Aharon to help them build a golden calf to worship. Witnessing this lapse into idolatry, God suggests destroying the wayward people and providing Moshe with a new people. This suggestion arouses compassion in Moshe. He reminds God of the covenant and asks God not to destroy the people; however, when Moshe descends the mountain and sees them praying to the calf, his own anger is aroused and he smashes the tablets of law, which God had given him.
Unlike God, who is able to restrain anger, Moshe cannot. Thus, when God offers to provide a second set of tablets, and Moshe prepares to receive them, he recognizes God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth.”
This verse is repeated often in Jewish liturgy, particularly between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, the verse is more evocative. The word translated as “compassion”—rachum—has the same Hebrew roots as the word “womb”—rechem. And the words translated as “slow to anger”—erech apayyim—literally mean “long (or deep) nostrils.” Translated more poetically, the verse suggests that God is “womb-full” and “takes deep breaths.”
When we teach this verse to our students, we do not shy away from these evocative metaphors. We know that God has no body parts. Yet, by translating the words as metaphors rather than concepts, we can understand God as a role model for how we should behave.
From this week’s parshah, we learn the feeling of “womb-fullness”—the feeling of deep care a parent has for her or his child. Nineteenth-century Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote that God’s love for human beings is a “womb-love.”
This week’s middah is: “Be compassionate and slow to anger.” We can understand it to mean: “Be womb-full and take deep breaths.”
This Shabbat, may we all aspire to be womb-fully compassionate and take deep breaths.