Our Selichot prayers are built around the “thirteen attributes of mercy” – the phrase used to refer to the verses in Sefer Shemot (34:6-7) in which God announces to Moshe after the sin of the golden calf His qualities of mercy and forgiveness, thus assuring forgiveness for that grave misdeed. We beseech God to “remember for us today the covenant of the thirteen [attributes],” the promise He made to Moshe to compassionately forgive us when we repent for our wrongdoing. This practice is rooted in the Gemara’s famous comment in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b) that God told Moshe at that time that whenever Benei Yisrael sin, they should recite the “thirteen attributes” as part of their process of repentance and prayer.
There is some disagreement among the Rishonim as to what exactly the thirteen attributes are. The list seems to begin with two instances of the Name of God – “Hashem Hashem” – which do not, at first glance, appear to represent any type of “attribute.” Nevertheless, Rabbenu Tam, cited by Tosafot (Rosh Hashanah 17b), maintained that these words in fact constitute the first of the “thirteen attributes.” Rabbenu Tam’s source is the Gemara’s remark (there in Rosh Hashanah) explaining “Hashem Hashem” to mean, “I am Him before a person sins, and I am Him after a person sins and repents.” The Name “Hashem” (“Havaya”) signifies compassion, and thus “Hashem Hashem” is to be viewed as two attributes – referring, respectively, to God’s compassion towards us before we sin, and God’s compassion towards us after sin.
Many writers have questioned the relevance of an “attribute of mercy” before sin. Seemingly, the concept we are addressing is that of mercy and forgiveness in the wake of our wrongdoing. How can we speak of God’s compassionate forgiveness before we even sin and require forgiveness?
One of the answers given is that indeed, forgiveness begins even before we sin, in the form of God’s realistic expectations of His creations. What makes forgiveness possible is “Ani Hu kodem she-yecheta ha-adam” – God’s merciful outlook even before we act wrongly. He created us, and thus He knows, even better than we do, just how frail and vulnerable we are, and how difficult it is for us to consistently do the right thing. Even before we sin, He understands that we are, by nature, prone to sin, and this leads to “Ani Hu achar she-yecheta ha-adam” – His compassionate acceptance of our heartfelt teshuva. God forgives because He understands our frailty and weaknesses, and our susceptibility to temptation. And thus indeed, the “thirteen attributes of mercy” begin with “I am Him before a person sins,” with His compassionate view of us even before we err.
Elsewhere (Shabbat 133b), the Gemara instructs us to follow God’s model of compassion and mercy in our dealings with other people. It follows, then, that just as God’s compassionate treatment of us begins with His understanding of our frailty and inherently flawed nature, our compassionate treatment of our fellowmen must likewise begin with this outlook. The first, crucial step to being forgiving and tolerant is harboring realistic expectations, understanding that people are flawed, imperfect beings, and that every person deals with struggles and problems that we do not see. Just as we pray for God to take into account our innate flaws and our difficult struggles in judging us, we, too, must take human frailty into account in our dealings with other people, and treat them with the same patience and graciousness with which we want to be treated.