The prophet Zechariah portrays God as a shepherd with two staffs: one is called “pleasantness” (נאם) and the other is called “woundings” (חובלים). In his commentary on Date Palm of Devorah, Rabbi Epstein explains the metaphor: just as a shepherd may choose to lead sheep with gentle prodding, using the staff of pleasantness, he may also direct his flock by striking them, using the staff of woundings. So, too, God may elect to lead us by opening doors of opportunity and allowing us to advance on our own or by forcing us to follow a path against our will, using harsh penalties. Either way, as Rabbi Cordovero puts it, “God behaves with hardness or with softness, all for the benefit of the Jewish people.”
In the Fifth Level of Mercy, Rabbi Cordovero explains that God will use the staff of pleasantness even if a person is undeserving. Borrowing from an episode in Jewish history recorded in II Kings, Rabbi Cordovero shows that God expanded the boundaries of ancient Israel under King Jeroboam even though the people did not repent. Counterintuitively, God may use the staff of pleasantness if the staff of woundings will not achieve the desired results.
Applied to the human level, Date Palm of Devorah urges us to consider switching tactics when dealing with difficult people. Sometimes an act of unmitigated forgiveness is required, even though the circumstances seem to demand retaliation or retribution.
This is another Level. Even when a person holds fast to negative behavior, God does not hold fast to His anger, and even if God does hold fast, it is only temporary. Rather, God nullifies His wrath even if the person does not repent.
This is as we find with Jeroboam son of Joash, for whom God restored the boundaries of Israel, even though they were worshipping idols. God had mercy on them even when they did not return.
If so, why did God have mercy? It was because of this Level: God does not hold fast to His anger forever. On the contrary, God actively weakens His own anger, such that even when the sin persists, God does not punish. God waits and extends mercy–perhaps they will repent! This is the meaning of “not forever will He fight, and not forever will He exact retribution.”
God behaves with softness and with hardness, all for the benefit of the Jewish people.
This is an appropriate Level for people to use with one another. Even if one had the right to rebuke or punish another, or rebuke or punish children, and the suffering was deserved, this does not mean that the person should exercise that right excessively. A person should not hold fast to anger, even when it is deeply felt. Rather, a person should nullify it and not hold fast to this anger.
Even if this anger were permitted, as the Sages understand the verse, “when you see the donkey of the one you hate lying under its burden,” and they explain, “What kind of hatred is this? When a person is a lone witness to another’s transgression, the testimony is invalid, and therefore he hates him for his act.” Nevertheless the Torah teaches, “You shall surely help the other.” Abandon what is in your heart! It is a commandment to draw that person close with love, and perhaps this approach will help. This is literally the Level under discussion: “He does not hold fast to His anger forever.”
Henry Abramson serves as Dean of the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College. A specialist in Jewish history and thought, he is the author of several works, most recently Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh. His online lectures in Jewish history are available at henryabramson.com.
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