In his swan song Moses salutes God as “the Rock – his deeds are perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:4). RaShI, the premiere medieval commentator, takes this phrase to mean that although God is omnipotent and, thus, He can do whatever he wants, violators of His will are not punished capriciously. RaShI’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, follows suit. The word “perfect” means fair and equitable. Hence, any punishment meted out by God to Israel is justified.
Thirteenth century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, however, read this phrase differently. What Moses means, writes Hizquni, the name by which he was known, is that there is no comparison at all between the abilities of God and those of mortals. People make things out of raw materials. In effect, people rearrange existing matter. God, on the other hand, creates matter. The creation of matter out of nothing is what theologians term creatio ex nihilo. Describing God’s works as “perfect” means they have an incomparable quality. God’s works are above and beyond the ability of any human to perform.
Given these two different approaches to understanding the uniqueness of God, readers are left to wonder which is preferable. Certainly, the sheer power of God is awesome. A God who can bring elements into existence is worthy of adoration. He is, as the familiar words of the central Jewish prayer attests, koneh ha-kol, the author of everything. Even so, we owe our allegiance to God not because God is powerful. Power itself is not a virtue. We owe our allegiance to God because God is just (or perceived to be just). Perfection is measured in terms of moral rectitude rather than in physical potency.
Before he dies Moses makes one last effort to instill within the hearts of the Israelites an appreciation of God that might be able to alter their obstreperous attitude and provide them spiritual sustenance as they prepare to inherit the Promised Land.