The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy
Translated by Simon M Jackson
“And God passed before him and proclaimed...” Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say such a thing; this verse teaches us that God enwrapped Himself like the sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) of a congregation and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them. (Rosh Hashana 17b)
The Torah writes “And He passed over” (va-yaavor) – which implies that God did not make do with words alone. In order to teach Moshe this essential concept of forgiveness through enwrapping oneself like a sheliach tzibbur (atifa), God physically demonstrated the act. What is the meaning of this atifa? Atifa hides the personality of the sheliach tzibbur; it conceals him. Any individual can pray without a tallit over his head; but the sheliach tzibbur must cover his head. Only then can he serve as an emissary of the community.
Sometimes, atifa can silence any attempt to pray. This is the kind of atifa which causes one to “enter into the rock and hide in the dust for fear of God and for the glory of His majesty” (Yeshayahu 2:10). A person who conceals himself in the underground tunnels amongst the rocks for fear of facing God, stands totally helpless before Him. However, there is another kind of atifa, that of the sheliach tzibbur, who conceals his entire personality, lowers his stature, and at the same time lives continually with a sense of mission and responsibility towards the community. Only then may he recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
To become a sheliach tzibbur in this sense, one must understand how God leads and guides His world and thus discover how a Jew should be seen by others. Every Jew must be a leader, each one of us must be responsible for the entire community. This is achieved through identification with God’s attributes, which constitute his relationship with the community of Am Yisrael. In order to empathize with God’s attributes, it is enough to identify with the first one, which the Kabbalists linked to the verse “Who is a God like You” (Mikha 7:18). Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (in his Tomer Devora) expounds:
“Who is a God like You” – This attribute refers to the Holy One as a tolerant King Who bears insult in a manner beyond human understanding. Without doubt, nothing is hidden from His view. In addition, there is not a moment that man is not nourished and sustained by virtue of the Divine power bestowed upon him.
Thus, no man ever sins against God, without – at that very moment – God bestowing abundant vitality upon him, giving him the power to move his limbs. Yet even though a person uses this very vitality to transgress, God does not withhold it from him. Rather, He suffers this insult and continues to enable his limbs to move. Even at the very moment that a person uses that power for transgression, sin, and infuriating deeds, the Holy One bears them patiently...
...This, then, is a virtue man should emulate – namely, tolerance. Even when he is insulted to the degree mentioned above he should not withdraw his benevolence from those upon whom he bestows it.
Only when man has enwrapped himself like a sheliach tzibbur, when his personality, his ego, does not exist, when his whole being is like that of a sheliach tzibbur – only then can he emulate God’s tolerance. And if we succeed in emulating God’s relationship with His people, we are assured forgiveness for our sins.
The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (1:2) states that on the Day of Judgment “All creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron.” The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) explains:
Like Bnei Maron – IN BAVEL it was translated, “like a flock of sheep” [Rashi: like lambs counted for the animal tithe, which are counted one by one as they pass through a small opening].
RESH LAKISH said: As in the ascent of Beit Maron [a textual variant reads “Beit Choron” – Rashi: a narrow pass where wayfarers had to proceed in single file, since the valley was deep on both sides].
RAV YEHUDA SAID IN THE NAME OF SHEMUEL: Like the troops of the House of David [Rashi: who pass in review one by one as they go out to battle].
All three of these explanations express the experience of a man standing alone before the Throne of Glory. Generally, a person is able to console himself by virtue of his membership in the community. When he contemplates the tzibbur as a whole, he sees that he is not so bad. He integrates himself into the community, and does not stand out as being so much worse than everyone else. The Mishna states: “On Rosh Hashana all creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron,” one by one; God assesses each person and looks in all those corners that he himself has no wish to bring to light, at all those points which he is trying to hide; but “if a person will hide himself away – will I not see him?”
One opinion states that each individual comes for judgment alone, by himself, just as lambs are counted for tithing. The other Amoraim add the fear of judgment that accompanies this phenomenon – as in the ascent of Beit Choron, where the chasm yawns beneath him. Man must climb alone, up a steep ascent, while at every moment the danger of falling into the abyss seems imminent.
Rav Yehuda is not satisfied with this. He likens the experience to that of soldiers of the House of David, who go forth with the awareness that there can be no battle without casualties!
And yet, the above Gemara continues, “Rav Yochanan said: [All the same,] they are all viewed together... [as it says,] ‘He fashions their hearts TOGETHER, He who considers ALL their deeds.’” We may also be judged as a community, and thus draw God’s mercy down upon us. How can we accomplish this task? If a person is able to enwrap himself as a sheliach tzibbur, to conceal his personality, to feel with every fiber of his being a sense of communal responsibility, and thus to proclaim the Thirteen Attributes – then “a covenant has been made that they will not be turned away empty-handed.”
This feeling of responsibility and mission must pervade our self-assessment. In the words of the Gemara (Kiddushin 40b): “A person should always see himself [and the whole world] as half guilty and half innocent ... If he does one mitzva – happy is he for having tilted himself and the entire world to the side of merit. If he transgresses one aveira – woe is he for having tilted himself and the entire world to the side of guilt...” A person must live with the sensation that an isolated act of his can cause revolutions and decide the fate of the entire world. With the sense that one’s actions will affect the fate of the community, we may recite the Thirteen Attributes and merit God’s mercy.
The first two attributes of God are “Hashem, Hashem” – “I am He before man sins, and I am He after he has sinned and repented.” Why is there a need for mercy BEFORE the sin? A person may feel that he is unworthy of acting as a sheliach tzibbur. He might ask himself: “Am I able to carry the responsibility for an entire world upon my puny shoulders? Surely I am as grave a sinner as any.” Therefore we must respond: God was also there before the sin, and saw to it that no Jew would be able to distance himself to such an extent that he would be incapable of returning to God! This is the meaning of “I am Hashem before he sins.”
We now stand before the Day of Judgment, knocking on God’s doors, “as beggars and paupers”. We have come to beg God to “hear our jubilation (rina) and prayer.” There are two types of prayer: the prayer of jubilation, and the prayer which is akin to “the prayer of a pauper when he faints (ya’atof)” (Tehillim 102:1). [“Ya’atof” can also be translated “enwraps.”] Rina abounds when a person thanks God for everything that has passed, and requests: “Keep this forever.” But there is another aspect of prayer, “A prayer of the afflicted when he faints (or enwraps),” when a person – as the Zohar describes King David – removes his crown, divests himself of his royal robes, covers himself with sackcloth, sits on the ground, and utters: “Master of the Universe, I am poor and lowly!”
“I am poor and lowly.” There are times when prayer is that of “the pauper when he faints”. Man is likened to a fleeting breath. He is like broken shard and like a passing dream.
But a prayer of the pauper before he faints is so, first and foremost, because of his frustration. How optimistically he viewed things at the start of the year, and yet the year has passed, and a person searches in vain for his accomplishments. Has he achieved even half of what he had hoped for? It is this same frustration which forms the basis of the month of Ellul. The Tur explains this idea (beginning of siman 585) in the name of Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer. After the sin of the Golden Calf, that same immense frustration was felt by Am Yisrael. Just a few weeks earlier, the angels themselves had harbored jealousy towards Am Yisrael! When Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai for the second time, on Rosh Chodesh Ellul, God commanded him to cause the shofar to be blown in the camp. This was to warn them not to stray after idolatry. Therefore, Chazal enacted that the shofar be blown annually on Rosh Chodesh Ellul and throughout the entire month, to warn us to repent.
The Jewish people at that time experienced that same feeling of frustration, of broken-heartedness. They had reached the heights of spirituality when Moshe first ascended the mount – and yet they fell from the highest levels to the lowest depths. And so Moshe Rabbeinu ascended that same height once again, vividly recalling the exalted joy of his first climb. Yet, alas, he had to ascend once more and begin again, only forty days later. This is the experience of Ellul.
We could have lived and experienced the spectacle of the Giving of the Torah all year long. The Gemara relates how certain Tannaim studied Torah while a fire raged around them. They said: Why be amazed? Was not the Torah itself given in fire! At that time, the words were as joyous as when they were given on Sinai.
And yet we cannot always maintain the link between our prayers for spiritual heights, and our everyday lives. We pray every day: “Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, and cause our hearts to cleave to Your mitzvot.” However, if – God forbid – the prayer stands by itself, and when we understand words of Torah, we fail to connect between our prayer and our achievements in learning – then we risk losing the ability to experience the raging fire of Torah from Sinai.
We can sit in the beit midrash and learn, and experience the sweetness of Torah – and yet lose the link between prayer and learning. For when a person removes the tallit from his head, he sees his “self” reflected everywhere he turns, and it becomes difficult for him to refrain from revealing his own individuality. It becomes almost impossible to remain a “sheliach tzibbur” throughout the day.
And so, our prayer is the “prayer of the pauper who enwraps himself.” Needy and destitute, we knock on God’s doors, full of frustration over the distance between our prayer and our reality. However, this very prayer of poverty and frustration can also redeem us. If we empathize totally with this aspect of being paupers, we sense how wholly poor and empty we really are, this can push us to completely enwrap ourselves and live with the perception of being a sheliach tzibbur. In no other period of our history was Am Yisrael so desperately in need of a leader. No one may divest himself of the obligation to enwrap himself, and to live as a sheliach tzibbur.
We live with this sensation of “the prayer of a pauper.” In this manner we will knock on God’s doors, contemplate the Thirteen Attributes, and thus we will attain emulation of God. With God’s help, we will not be turned away empty-handed. In this spirit we draw near to pray and to recite the Thirteen Attributes. We will request mercy for ourselves and for the entire Jewish People. We must search our hearts and ask ourselves honestly if we have risen to the tasks that we took upon ourselves. Have others really seen us as benei Torah in every step we have made, at home, in the army, in the beit midrash, in university, at work, on the street?
If our prayer is coupled with sincere self-examination and renewed desire to act as leaders of our people, then a covenant has been made that we will not be turned away empty-handed. God will fulfill our requests, and we will merit forgiveness and mercy, and a year of life and peace – for us and for all the Jewish People.
(This sicha was delivered on the first night of Selichot, Ellul 5745 .)