3.01 UNDERSTANDING TESHUVA AND SLICHOS: UNDERSTANDING THE 13 ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY
This Motsei Shabbos (Saturday night) at around 12 o’clock, wherever Orthodox Judaism is practiced, many Jews will be staying up to do the Selichos Service. During the service, there is a section that will be repeated over and over again in a very loud voice. It is called, ‘The 13 Attributes of Mercy which are the heart of the Selichos Service. Today’s sheet is dedicated to understanding what is the essence of the 13 Attributes.
WHAT ARE THE 13 ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY?
The 13 Attributes of Mercy are the 13 ways that describe how G-d is merciful to us. In one case, G-d has mercy with love. In another case G-d has mercy by being slow to anger. In another case, G-d has mercy by forgiving sin. In every case, G-d is looking to give us a way out, so we can have another chance to grow close.
G-d, G-d, Omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous (resources of) love and truth. He remembers deeds of love for thousands of generations, forgiving sin, rebellion and error. He does not clear (those who do not repent), but keeps in mind the sins of the fathers to their children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generation. (Shmos 34.6)
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE 13 ATTRIBUTES?
After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe wanted to understand how G-d related with the world with His attributes of strict judgement and mercy. Moshe saw this as an opportunity to know G-d in a powerful way.
Moshe said to G-d, “Now, if You are indeed pleased with me, allow me to know Your ways, so that I will know how to (remain) pleasing to You. (Also), You must confirm that this nation Is Your people.”
“My presence will go and lead you,” replied G-d. “Since you have been pleasing to Me and I know you by name, I will also fulfill this request of yours (to know My ways).”
“Please let me have a vision of Your glory,” begged Moshe.
G-d replied, “I will make all My good pass before you, and reveal the Divine Name in your presence. . . You cannot have a vision of My presence. A man cannot have a vision of Me and still exist.”
G-d then said, “I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain. When My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by. I will then remove My protective power, and you will have a vision of what follows from my existence. My essence itself however, will not be seen.
G-d passed by before Moshe and proclaimed, G-d, G-d Omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous (resources of) love and truth. He remembers deeds of love for thousands of generations, forgiving sin, rebellion and error. He does not clear (those who do not repent), but keeps in mind the sins of the fathers to their children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generation. (Shmos 33.12-34.7)
Moshe wanted to understand the underlying principles guiding Hashem’s behavior in the world. In the event of the Golden Calf, G-d had let Moshe see Him governing in a diversity of ways of which Moshe sought the key. He had desired to get this knowledge at its very source, by a direct sight of G-d Himself. By this direct sight he could gain an insight into the harmonious uniformity of the apparently diverse ways of G-d’s rule. This knowledge was denied him, but he was taught a certain degree of this knowledge. This was shown him and explained to him by the thirteen attributes. What he actually saw remains unknown to us, but the “Names”, that were explained to him were told to us. Those we can try stammeringly to follow and attempt some understanding of them.(Based on Hirsch 34.6)
The 13 Attributes are a limited explanation of the underlying principles guiding Hashem’s behavior in the world. Moshe wanted a complete explanation, but G-d would not grant his request. But what Moshe did see was the highest level of knowledge of G-d that a human being could hope to see. He saw the 13 Attributes.
UNDERSTANDING THE 13 ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY
If you look carefully at the attributes in verse 6, you will see that each character trait is another aspect of G-d’s mercy. G-d looks to forgive us in all these different ways.
G-d looks for every possible way to give you a break. In His infinite wisdom he does so just at the right time. bbG-d loves you and is looking to forgive you, not hurt you.
Understanding the ways that G-d interacts in the world is, to a certain extent, understanding the essence of G-d. G-d is a loving and kind G-d. The 13 Attributes of Mercy teaches us that in every case G-d is looking to help you, and the bottom line is that he loves you very dearly. There are variations in this mercy and that is the basic understanding of the 13 Attributes.
UNDERSTANDING THE GEMORA IN ROSH HASHANAH 17B
And the L-rd passed before him and proclaimed (Shmos 34.6). Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible to say such a thing. This verse teaches us that the Holy One drew His tallis round Him like the reader of a congregation and showed Moshe the order (of the 13 Attributes). He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them. . . R. Yehuda said: A covenant has been made with the 13 attributes that they will not be turned away empty handed, as it says, Behold, I make a covenant. (Rosh HaShanah 17b)
Whenever the Jewish People sin and do teshuva they should recite these 13 Attributes. This will lead to forgiveness from G-d.
It says in the prayer,’G-d, the King Who Sits,” (El Melech Yoshev):
G-d, you taught us to say the Thirteen Attributes. Remember for us today the covenant of the Thirteen Attributes, as You taught the humble one long ago.
When we are in trouble, all we have to do is to say the 13 Attributes and that will lead to us being answered from G-d.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE EMOTIONAL EFFECT OF SAYING THE 13 ATTRIBUTES?
Many times after we do a transgression, it is very difficult to return to G-d. We feel we are low and far away. We feel that G-d would never want to accept us back.
On a certain level, when we have thoughts like these, we have forgotten G-d’s essence. Our emotions lead us to believe that G-d is a cruel and distant, and therefore, we can’t return to Him.
By saying the 13 Attributes we remember that G-d is a loving, kind and merciful G-d. He wants us back. It doesn’t matter how lowly we are. G-d doesn’t care. He looks for every angle to love us and help us even if we do something low. This is a tremendous motivation to do teshuva.
The emotional effect of saying the 13 Attributes should be to motivate us to return to G-d no matter what we have done. At this time of year, precisely when we are trying the hardest to return to G-d and gain His forgiveness, we need to review this principle over and over again: No matter what we have done, we can return to G-d.
THERE IS A COVENANT THAT IF WE SAY THE ATTRIBUTES WITH CONCENTRATION THEY WILL ALWAYS BE EFFECTIVE
Now we can understand the words of the Gemora, “A covenant has been made with the 13 attributes that they will not be turned away empty handed, as it says, ‘Behold, I make a covenant.” G-d has put special power in these words to allow people to come to these realizations about G-d loving us.
By saying the 13 Attributes with concentration, intention, and understanding, the covenant will take affect. This is symbolized in the Gemora by G-d wrapping the tallis over His head signifying concentration. This is to show us not to be distracted while reciting thel3 attributes. (Maharal)
MAKE A COMMITMENT TO UNDERSTAND THE 13 ATTRIBUTES THIS YEAR
Before the upcoming Selichos prayers, make a commitment to understand the 13 Attributes. By reciting them with understanding, we have the ability to transform the whole teshuva process. Keep in mind, that Hashem has made a covenant, that for someone who says it with understanding, he cannot go away empty handed.
May the understanding of the 13 Attributes and its effect on us spur us on to a powerful year where all our goals will be fulfilled.