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As I've discussed in a previous musings entitled "The Rest of the Ten Commandments," there's a lot more to the "ten commandments" (well, especially the first five) than the somewhat simplistic one-sentence reductions we commonly make of them.
In thinking about parashat Yitro this year, I was particularly struck by one phrase in the "rest" of the second commandment, the one we commonly think of as just "You shall have no other Gd's...You shall not make any graven images..." However, it doesn't stop there.
"You shall have no other Gds beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, the Lrd your Gd, am an impassioned Gd...."
Or as it reads in some translations, a "jealous Gd." In Hebrew, El kana. The Hebrew root, qof, nun, alef is believed to originally refer to deep red (or black) color that the human face turns when expressing strong emotions, primarily jealousy, but also including zeal or even ardor. Thus the word "kana" has come to mean jealous or with strong emotion.
I think that, sometimes, the generally accepted scholarly definition of "kana" as "jealous" is avoided as being problematic, which is why we find translations like "impassioned." I'm not sure either is less problematic. Passion often leads to negative consequences, much as jealousy does.
The obvious questions is, why would the One Gd be jealous? Jealous of what? Of whom? Other gds? Seems silly for the ultimate power in the Universe to be jealous of other gds, even if we grant that they might exist.
Of course, maybe Gd is jealous of these other "no-Gds" as they are referred to in later writings because, as "no-Gds", these other deities don't have the awesome responsibilities and incredible difficulties inherent in being the creator and sustainer of the Universe. Gd is jealous, perhaps, of those with a lighter burden than Gd carries? It's an interesting thought. But I digress.
We must be careful, of course, taking "El kana" out of context, for the text goes on to explain that Gd visits the iniquities of parents upon children into the 3rd and 4th generations, but showing kindness for thousands of generations to those who love Gd and keep Gd's commandments.
This would seem to lend more credence to the defining of "kana" as impassioned...but that, too, is problematic if, for no other reason, than that, just as with jealous, it can be seen as somewhat anthropomorphic. Why would Gd have need of such emotions?
Well, I don't think it's a problem at all. I, for one, am happy to view Gd as being impassioned, jealous, angry, happy, etc. After all, we are made in Gd's image. If Gd, the omniscient deity, has need of strong emotions, than we frail human beings should not feel so bad about having them as well.
The theme has been explored many times, even in Star Trek lore, as the virtues of logic and controlled emotions as practiced by the imaginary Vulcans are pitted against the raw emotion of human beings. While the lesson often derived from these excursions into science-fictional ethics is that a balance between emotion and logic is probably best, the simple fact remains that, if logic needs to be tempered by emotion, then emotion is a required characteristic.
Again, more Star Trek midrash-with several episodes over the years and different ST series showing what happens when humans, with raw emotion, require limitless power. Almost invariably, the uncontrolled emotion leads to disaster in the hands of the immature mind with infinite power. (And even an episode or two where deities or demi-gds are brought to ruin by their abuse of power as a result of emotion and passion.) We find the same example in our own tradition. I cannot read the Torah without believing that it is as much an accounting of Gd learning lessons along the way as much as it is Israel (and all humanity) learning lessons along the way.
"El kana" made in its own image "ish kana" -- impassioned Gd creates impassioned human being. There must be something special about that quality that makes one "kana", otherwise why else fashion your creations to have that quality?
So Gd was, is, will be, an impassioned Gd, a jealous Gd. Fine by me, as it gives me, made in the image of Gd, permission to be the same, and to sometimes make the same mistakes inherent in such a system, as I learn to control those passions and balance them with logic.
This Shabbat, do not be troubled by the thought of "El kana." Revel in it. Rejoice in it. Live long and prosper in it.
© 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
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