If you’re reading this on the day it was published, you are in the midst of one of the many fast days in the Jewish calendar. This one being the Fast of Esther, observed on the day before Purim. As I mentioned last week, though the holiday of the week is Purim, the weekly Torah portion is Ki Sisa, infamous for the sin of the golden calf. And interestingly enough, an important observance of the fast is given in this week’s parsha.
Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for 40 days learning the rest of the Oral Torah. The Jews get tired of waiting and decide to make a golden calf to worship. Moses comes down (on the 17th of Tammuz, another fast day we observe) with the Ten Commandments in tablet form. Upon seeing the idolatry, shatters said tablets, and confronts the Jews, putting to death some 3,000 of the worst offenders. Then Moses returns to God and pleads for God to show him the good in this, after which God proclaims to Moses His 13 Attributes of Mercy (aka the יג Middos HaRachamim).
According to Rabbi Yochanan’s interpretation (Rosh Hashanah 17b) God tells Moses “Anytime that Israel sins, let them perform before Me this procedure and I will forgive them.” From this, during all fast days, during a special part of the service known as Selichos (as well as during Vidui and all throughout Yom Kippur) we as a congregation recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy.
So without further ado, here they are.
13 Attributes of Mercy
1) י-ה-ו-ה Hashem, 2) י-ה-ו-ה Hashem, 3) א-ל Almighty, 4) רחום Merciful, 5) וחנון and Gracious, 6) ארך אפים Slow to anger, 7) ורב חסד and Abundant in Kindness, 8) ואמת and Truth, 9) נצר חסד לאלפים Preserver of kindness for thousands, 10) נשא עון Forgiver of iniquity , 11) ופשע willful sin, 12) וחטאה and inadvertent sin, 13) ונקה and Who absolves.
It’s great to remind ourselves that these are the attributes of God. But if you read through a prayer book, the praises of God often time seem repetitive, even trite. What is it about these attributes that should resonate with us?
- Hashem – י-ה-ו-ה – The holiest of God’s Names. The essence of mercy from an all powerful Creator.
- Hashem – י-ה-ו-ה – The repetition of the Name is counted as a distinct attribute because the Torah is telling us that unlike our other relationships, God will always be there for us after we sin, just as He was before we sinned. It’s us that are the ones that go away from Him.
- Almighty א-ל – This Name refers to God as all powerful, a reminder that there is literally nothing He can’t do. This might seem obvious, but when we are in those situations where our lives seem completely out of hand, at a point of no return, take a breath and realize that it CAN be fixed. Authentically ask God for it.
- Merciful רחום – In the Path of the Just, the Ramchal notes that God doesn’t give punishment as exact justice but instead is tempered with mercy. The first way is that He allows for teshuvah. Another way is that even if one does not do teshuvah, the punishment (or rather, the consequence) for the action isn’t as harsh as it should be. Despite other views of the “Old Testament God,” Hashem is not here to meet out vengeful punishment. He wants you to win. He’ll course correct you when He has to, but otherwise you’re going to get the benefit of the doubt.
- Gracious וחנון – The word grace is usually either used in Christianity as being favored by God, or as a refined behavior or masterful movement, maybe the way an Olympic skater glides through a routine. Neither use would make much sense in describing God. However in Hebrew, חן chein, can be understood as an inspiring charisma. The sort of smile or compliment that stays with a person and brightens their day. That’s the sort of intangible quality we’re talking about.
- Slow to Anger ארך אפים – Above I said that The Path of the Just listed ways that Hashem is tempered opposed to exact in his judgment. Here we see the 3rd way, slow to anger. When we sin, God gives us chance after chance to turn ourselves around and delays the consequences of our actions.
- Abundant in Kindness ורב חסד – We get that God is kind, but here we understand he’s the Rav of kindness, the expert and master of kindness! It may be hard for us to accept (especially if we are dealing with difficult times) but having emmunah means that everything that comes into our lives is tailored for us and for our benefit. Just yesterday, I was driving and someone ran a stop sign (well, he did that thing where he slowed for a second and preceded even though it was my turn to go) just as I was about to turn in front of them. Angry with righteous indignation, I honked and followed close behind. When we got to the next stop sign, I did my little stop and kept following, only to see the brights of the car to my left going into the intersection. I had done the EXACT same thing the guy in front of me did. The oncoming car didn’t honk or flip me off. God could have done much worse to teach me my lesson, but he was extraordinarily kind.
- Truth ואמת – The one thing the Eternal Judge knows that no human court does is the truth. He knows our struggles and our history and will find every conceivable reason to give us a break. And if someone gets off from a punishment in this world even though you know they are guilty, it will certainly be taken care of in the next world.
- Preserver of Kindness for Thousands נצר חסד לאלפים – Here, thousands means for thousands of generations. We think when we do a kindness, it effects the person and maybe effects us, and maybe adds to some cosmic karmic bank account. But this attribute says that that single act of kindness is like the ultimate pay-it-forward butterfly effect! Our acts of kindness last longer and are farther reaching than we could ever imagine. They are so profound that our descendants 1000 generations down the road will still be cashing in on the merit of the things we do.
- Forgiver of Iniquity נשא עון – Yes, God forgives. Iniquity is another odd translation, but essential refers to the things we do that pervert justice and twist the intended purposes. God gives us tools to be used in an ideal way. Imagine if you used your wife’s wedding dress to wash the car.
- Forgiver of Willful Sin, פשע – פשע or pesha, connotes rebellion. Sometimes we sin because we just can’t resist, but sometimes we get mad at God and do the sin to spite Him. The latter is what this is referring to.
- Forgiver of Inadvertent Sin, וחטאה – Unlike pesha, a chet (which is the usual translation for sin in Hebrew) is more like missing the mark. We’re trying to do good, but we’re not angels. When we aren’t able to resist our temptations or we make a mistake, that’s what we’re talking about here.
- Who Absolves, ונקה – Lastly, when we ask forgiveness from God we need to be real with the fact that He’s going to forgive us. If we don’t understand that, we lose the ability to authentically move past it. Sometimes we torture ourselves, thinking how could we ever be forgiven for X thing we did. But God not only forgives, he cleanses you of the sin as if you never did it.
Finally, it’s believed by saying these words, you’ll get forgiveness from God. What is this? Some magical incantation? The Talmud says that we are supposed to recognize these attributes, but then internalize and emulate them. Imagine if we lived in a world where most people were slow to anger, cared more about truth than being right, knew that their good deeds would not only make a difference but endure for half of eternity. It’s when we carry these these traits that we start to identify more with God then with our sins and short comings.
So have a great holiday and remember that Yom Kippur is understood to be a “day like Purim.” They have similar powers of atonement. Except we get to eat and drink on Purim, yay!!!
I learned some interesting attributes of Mercy that I didn’t know.
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