Following the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses managed to convince God to cancel the punishment God had decreed for the Jewish people (Ex. 32:9-14), but not Divine forgiveness (vv 30-35).
What is the difference between cancelling the punishment but not offering Divine forgiveness?
Why does Divine forgiveness matter?
Moses utilizes his special relationship with God (“The Lord would speak to Moses panim el panim, face to face”, Ex. 33:11), asking to see God’s Presence (kevodecha) (v 18). God offers to pass God's “goodness” before Moses, though not God's face, since “no human can see Me and live” (v. 20).
The Lord descended in a cloud, “stood with him there” and proclaimed both God's name (Ex 34:5) and the “attributes”. Right there, on the spot, Moses challenges God “to deliver,” to act in accordance with the mercy and forgiveness He has attributed to Himself.
What are the 13 attributes of God and what is the context?
שלש עשרי מידות
יי ׀ יי אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙...וְסָלַחְתָּ֛ לַעֲוֹנֵ֥נוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵ֖נוּ וּנְחַלְתָּֽנוּ׃
The Thirteen Attributes of God in the Machzor:
YHVH, YHVH, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, transgression and sin, and acquitting.... Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!
What is the difference between the Torah citation of the 13 Attributes verses the version we use during the High Holy Days in our machzor?
Why do you think the authors of the machzor truncated the citation from the Torah?
Unpacking the 13 Attributes (one version):
- YHVH - I am God before people sin
- YHVH - I am God after people sin if they repent
- El - (All-powerful) God
- Rahum - Compassionate
- VeHanun - Gracious
- Erekh Apayim - Slow to anger
- Verav Hesed - Abounding in lovingkindness
- Ve’emet - And in truth
- Notzer hesed La’alafim - Maintaining lovingkindness for 1,000 generations
- Nosei avon - Forgiving premeditated sins
- Va’fesha - sins committed in rebellion
- Va’hata’ah - sins made by mistake
- Venakeh - acquitting the penitent.
(R. Tam, RH 17b, adapted by Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy)
What is the purpose of the 13 Attributes?
When else are the 13 Attributes of God invoked in our Tanakh?
In the book of Numbers, the spies return to the people with a report that causes the Israelites to express disbelief in God’s ability to lead them into the land. God, in fury, threatens to wipe out the people of Israel. Standing between the jilted God and the “stiff-necked” people, Moses recites some of the attributes as a plea for forgiveness.
Interestingly enough, in one instance these special attributes cause great anger and distress. Jonah is furious at God for being kind and merciful and accepting the tshuva (repentance) of the citizens of Ninveh (Text 3 and Questions). In great irony, Jonah’s harsh words against God echo the very words that describe God’s forgiveness to the Jewish people at the time of the Golden Calf. Jonah does not explain his wrath, but it does pose the issue of the place of tshuva and forgiveness in a world where accountability and responsibility for one’s actions are important means for maintaining social order.
Why does God need to be reminded of the 13 attributes? Is it a magic formula?
יאמרו לפני כסדר הזה לא נאמר אלא יעשו לפני, שלא באמירה בלבד תלוי הדבר אלא בעשייה, אם עושה אדם מידותיו כמידויו של הקב"ה, עוונותיו נמחלין לו.
...It does not say, "They shall say in accordance to this order before me." Rather [it says], "They shall do (ya'asu) [in accordance with this order] before me." For this matter does not depend solely on saying, but on doing (assiyah). If a person does (or makes) his midot (inner attributes/character/virtues) like the midot of the Holy One, the person's sins are forgiven. -- Alshich in Itturei Torah, pg. 268
- What does it mean that 7 phenomena were created "before the world was created"?
- Why is teshuva (repentance) on that list, and what does that teach us about the human condition?
Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (adapted)
We cannot actually picture goodness. It is not a being; it is a force, like electricity. Nobody ever actually saw electricity, but we can see and feel what electricity does. If we have an electric heater and connect it, we get heat. We get to know what electricity is by what it does. In the same way, we get to know what God is by what God makes us do: when people are, so to speak, connected with God, they do good things. We call those people godly people, and their acts, godly acts. Whenever this force is active, we say that God has exercised influence and power.