The Selichot prayer service is built around the declaration of the “thirteen attributes of mercy” which God Himself pronounced to Moshe when Moshe beseeched Him for forgiveness after the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 34:6-7). These attributes begin with “Hashem Hashem” – the repetition of God’s Name. The Gemara explains this phrase to mean, “Ani hu kodem she-yecheta ha-adam va-ani hu le-achar she-yecheta ha-adam ve-ya’aseh teshuva” – “I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.”
The simple meaning of the Gemara’s comment, it would seem, is that God promises to fully restore His relationship with us after repentance. He assures us that despite our wrongdoing, He is prepared to show us the same love, protection and care after we repent that He showed before we sinned.
However, many commentators found it significant that the Gemara speaks of God promising compassion “kodem she-yecheta ha-adam” – even before a person sins. This might indicate that we need God’s special mercy and compassion even before we have done anything wrong for which we require forgiveness. The question thus arises as to why special mercy is necessary even before one commits a wrongful act.
One of the answers suggested is that of the Mabit, in his Beit Elokim (Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, chapter 1), who explains that the Gemara refers here to the stage when a person plans to commit wrongdoing. Although it is clear that these plans will materialize, as the person is resolute in his decision to sin and there appears to be no obstacle to his committing the act, nevertheless, God does not judge or condemn the individual at that point. He mercifully withholds judgment until the act is committed, and does not rush to punish a person for his desire and intent to violate His word.
The significance of the Mabit’s explanation perhaps lies in the fact that God continues to believe in our capacity to refrain from wrongdoing even after we’ve planned to commit a forbidden act. Even if a person has firmly resolved to act wrongly, or has been habitually guilty of this act in the past, God does not hold the person accountable for the act that is all but certain to be committed, and instead trusts in the individual’s ability to refrain. It is only once the act is committed that the person is liable to punishment.
If so, then we must follow this example and trust in our own ability to reverse our direction. As thinking, independent human beings endowed with the power of free will, to choose between right and wrong, we are fully in control of our decisions until the act is done. At no point do we act under any kind of coercive force. If we have fallen into a habit of wrongful behavior, we still have the power to change our pattern of conduct and refrain from wrongdoing going forward. The concept of “Ani hu kodem she-yecheta ha-adam” shows us the extent to which God Himself trusts our power of free will, and believes in our ability to refrain from wrongdoing no matter how certain it appears that we will commit the act. And it thus teaches us to have this level of trust and belief in ourselves, and to recognize the power we have to make the right decisions and live the way God expects and demands that we live.