We can’t fit everything into these essays. Case in point: On yesterday’s page, the rabbis conjured a marvelous image of God praying just like human beings. They imagined that when God prays, God wears tefillin, the small boxes containing sacred texts some Jews strap to their arms and heads for weekday prayers. Just as Israel’s tefillin contain verses about God, the rabbis imagined, God’s tefillin contain verses about Israel.
On today’s daf, the rabbis continue to probe the idea that God prays and ask a logical follow-up question: What does God pray?
Rabbi Zutra bar Tovia supplies the answer in the name of Rav. Here is God’s prayer:
May it be my will that my mercy will overcome my anger,
and may my mercy prevail over my other attributes,
and may I conduct myself toward my children (Israel) with the attribute of mercy,
and may I put them before the letter of the law.
In other words, God prays for patience and mercifulness in the face of human injustice. God prays not to be tempted, however rightly, to mete out just punishment for the wickedness of Israel.
Much of Western culture is steeped in the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible is jealous and vengeful. But here in the Talmud, the ancient rabbis imagine God very differently. Theirs is a God who has every reason to be angry — after all, there is a great deal of human wickedness in the world. Human beings started messing up almost from the very first moment, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s direct command and ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
And yet, God does not punish people as they deserve, but practices merciful restraint — even prays to be more merciful.
Rav’s teaching isn’t so easily accepted. His colleagues challenge him: Does God really have difficulty overcoming anger? Can we even think of God in terms of such a base human emotion? Here too, the answer is “yes.” Even God can be roused to anger; the rabbis find proof in the Psalms:
God vindicates the righteous, God is furious every day (Psalm 7:12).
So, yes, God gets angry. That’s why God needs to pray for mercy. Otherwise, humanity would be obliterated in divine rage. (It nearly happened in the time of Noah.) But, the Talmud notes, God’s anger is exceedingly short. God masters anger in a fraction of a second — literally. The Talmud says God overcomes anger in “1/58,888th of an hour” (about 1/1000th of a second). So apparently prayer really helps.