Describing Hashem as a “Keil Kana—a jealous God” in Parshat Ki Tisa (Shemot 34:14), seems unflattering. Avot 4:21 states that jealousy, (unbridled) desire and (pursuing) honor remove one from this world. Moreover, the straightforward meaning (according to the Ibn Ezra and Seforno) of the last of the Aseret Hadibrot, “lo tachmod” (Shemot 20:13 and Devarim 5:17), is not to be jealous. So, why does our parsha describe Hashem as “a jealous God” to motivate us to avoid avodah zara?
Dibra Torah K’Lasho Bnei Adam
We marshal the principle of “dibra Torah k’lasho bnei adam” (the Torah describes Hashem in human terms; Yevamot 8a, Nedarim 3a, Bava Metzia 31b, Sanhedrin 64b and Makkot 12a) to solve our problem. In a classic example, the Torah describes Hashem as having human features. The Torah describes Hashem as removing us from Mitzrayim with a yad chazaka, a strong hand (Shemot 6:1). Hashem—most definitely—does not have a hand. Nevertheless, the Torah describes Him as having “a strong hand” as a metaphor to help us grasp His forceful action against Mitzrayim. Targum Onkelos and the Rambam—in the first part of his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed)—devote much attention to clarifying when the Torah describes Hashem figuratively.
In this case, the Torah describes Hashem as “a jealous God,” comparing Him to a jealous husband outraged by his wife’s infidelity. Hashem is similarly incensed at our committing to another “god.” However, He is not jealous in human terms. Instead, the Torah describes Him in this manner to help us grasp the profundity of His disappointment and dismay with a very poor choice to worship avodah zara.
Shir Hashirim famously compares our relationship with Hashem to a husband-wife relationship. Thus, referring to Hashem as a jealous God in the face of our infidelity to Him is entirely appropriate. A sound-minded spouse with proper values would be extremely upset even with a mate’s casual connection with the opposite gender. Similarly, Hashem detests even some mild dabbling in avodah zara.
Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li—I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me (Shir HaShirim 6:3). Hashem holds His commitment to us as sacrosanct, and He expects us to reciprocate that commitment fully. In Parshat Bechukotai, Hashem detests a casual connection (“Holech imi b’keri;” Vayikra 26:23) with Him. If we are relaxed with our bond with Him, He responds with a casual relationship with us (“Vehalachti af ani imachem b’keri;” Vayikra 26:24).
Describing Hashem as a “Keil Kana” does not insult Hashem. Quite the opposite is true. Instead, it highlights that Hashem is invested in us and our relationship with Him in the same manner a proper spouse regards his or her mate. “Keil Kana” does not reflect a vengeful or mean-spirited tyrannical figure. Rather, the Torah compares Hashem to a loving spouse, rightfully expecting the same from His beloved.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.