Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein
Director of Training and Placement, Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs
It’s a widespread custom to say “Slichot”/Prayers besieging G-d for forgiveness, beginning either from Rosh Chodesh Elul/beginning the month prior to Rosh Hashana/ the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, or the 2nd to last Saturday night before Rosh Hashana all the way through the eve of Rosh Hashana, the week in between, leading into and including Yom Kippur itself.
During this High-Holiday period, any Baal-Tefilla/Leader of the Services in communities less proficient with both the Hebrew language will inevitably be told, that each time THE REFRAIN comes up during Slichot, it be sung in the rather familiar/universal tune. Indeed, in any of the above cases, there is no question that there is a clear “refrain” that is repeated many a times throughout the Slichot; the famous words starting with “Hashem Hashem, Kel, Rachum, Vechanun”/”G-d, G-d, benevolent G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious.” Saying it so many times, one day after the other, and especially when hearing it sung by the entire congregation, begs one to wonder why it’s repeated so recurrently.
The source of these renowned phrase is in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf, in which G-d eventually does forgive the Jewish people, telling Moshe and the Jews the above Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The clear context is G-d forgiving the Jews for the sin above, giving them the second set of tablets, and thereafter, saying these famous words. Thus, it’s no wonder that these thirteen famous words are part and parcel of the prayers asking for forgiveness.
But their central location within the prayers pleading for forgiveness is not just based on our reading the above historic episode, but rather on a very clear and direct tradition to their effect from our sages, seeing this as a “covenant/contract ” between us and G-d each time we may sin;
“ויעבר ה’ על פניו ויקרא“- אמר רבי יוחנן: אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו; מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור, והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה. אמר לו: “כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם.” ה’ ה’ – אני הוא קודם שיחטא האדם, ואני הוא לאחר שיחטא האדם ויעשה תשובה. אל רחום וחנון, אמר רב יהודה: ברית כרותה לשלש עשרה מדות שאינן חוזרות ריקם, שנאמר “הנה אנכי כרת ברית.” (מסכת ראש-השנה, דף י”ז עמוד ב’)
“And G-d passed before him and proclaimed …”- R. 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 the Holy One, blessed be He, drew his robe round Him like the Leader of Congregation and showed Moshe the order of prayer. G-d said to Moshe: Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out/do this service before Me, and I will forgive them. ‘G-d, G-d,’: I am the Eternal before a man sins and the same after a man sins and repents. ‘Benevolent G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious:’ Rav Yehuda said: A covenant has been made with the thirteen-attributes that they will not be turned away empty-handed, as it says, “Behold! I will form a covenant” (Tractate Rosh-Hashanah 17b.)
As we can see, our sages have a tradition, based on their reading of the above verses that there is a special “power” of forgiveness, promised by G-d, if we intertwine our pleas for repentance with these specific thirteen attributes, and thus, they are repeated so frequently through the services asking for forgiveness.
However, can we even phantom that, when it comes to forgiveness, we have an automatic ATM-Machine where we put in these thirteen words, and in return receive forgiveness? And moreover, even if the above were to be true, what is so special about these specific thirteen attributes that give us the “In” if we say them? After all, there is no lack of verses that connote the manifestations of G-d’s unconditional love for the Jewish people throughout our Bible?!
….אמרו במסכת ראש השנה… “כל זמן שישראל יעשו לפני כסדר הזה אני מוחל להם,” עכ”ל. והדבר קשה; שהרי אנו רואים שכמה פעמים אנו מזכירין י”ג מדות ואינם נענים? אלא אומרים הגאונים, כי כוונת ‘יעשו לפני כסדר הזה’, אין הכוונה לבד על עטיפת טלית, אלא שיעשו סדר המדות שלמד הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה, שהוא ‘אל רחום וחנון’, דהיינו מה הוא רחום אף אתה תהיה רחום וכו’, וכן לכל הי”ג מדות, (של”ה, עשרה מאמרות, מאמר שביעי/קצ”ג)
…it says in Tractate Rosh Hashana… “Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out/do this service before Me, and I will forgive them.“ This is rather difficult; after all, we see many a time that we say these Thirteen Attributes, and they are not answered Rather, these Geonim explain, that the meaning of “ let them carry out/do this service” is not to cover yourself in a Tallit, but rather “to carry out”/”do” these attributes that G-d taught Moshe; that he be “ compassionate and gracious,” in other words; Just like he is compassionate so too you should be compassionate etc’, and so too for all the Thirteen Attributes.” (Shela”h, Asara Maamarot, 7/193.)
…” ופירשו רבותינו הקדושים כוונתם, שאמרו אם יעשו לפני כסדר הזה וכו’ – דהיינו שיתנהגו בהי”ג מדות, מה הוא רחום – אף אתה רחום וכו’, ועל ידי כן יהיו ממשיכין על בני ישראל כל הטובות ורחמים וחסדים מהמקור של רחמים, (מאור ושמש, במדבר, פרשת חקת.)
…Our Holy Rabbis explained their intention; they said “ let them carry out/do this service” etc’- in other words let them behave in accordance with these 13 attributes; Just as G-d is compassionate and gracious, so too you etc’, and by doing so the Jewish people are showered with all the goodness, mercy and graciousness of mercy.” (Maor VaShemesh, Bamidbar, Parshat Chukat)
According to these careful readings of the after mentioned passage, the sages NOT telling us to “say” these words, but rather to “carry them out,” to practice them in our own lives.
אבא שאול אומר- הדמה לו; מה הוא רחום וחנון, אף אתה רחום וחנון.(מסכת סופרים פרק ג/י”ז)
Aba Shaul said; Imitate G-d; Just as G-d is compassionate and gracious, so too you be compassionate and gracious (Tractate Sofrim 3/17)
Thus, when we repeat these words/familiar tune so many times during these High Holiday season, it’s not the words, per-se, and not even the actual recital that would be the “Magic-wand” which would give us automatic forgiveness. A serious religion, demanding that we שיוויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד/ “see G-d in front of us always,” would obviously not be that simplistic and primitive! Rather, it’s the action emanating from them;
- Are we merciful and kind, or do we ONLY go by the “letter of the law?”
- Are we generous with our time and our money?
- Do we smile and kindly greet people we don’t know on the street, etc’] or are we the very opposite, being too punctilious and demanding with the people that we come in contact with?
If we are practicing the thirteen attributes we so often say, then, and only then, will G-d forgive us, being merciful to us…as we precisely are to others. But, on the other hand, if we hold grudges, don’t forgive easily and the like, can we expect G-d to do more than us?
So is so beautifully said in the name of the famed “Chafetz-Chaim” by his son in law, Rav Aharon, explaining why do many have said these words and yet were not forgiven with the following analogy; an employer gave his employee various tasks to fulfill daily, and, as a favor to him, actually wrote them clearly on paper for him “to follow,” thus organizing his day for him. However, when checking up on him after a few days on the job, it seemed that the employee misunderstood:
…. ” כעבור הזמן ההוא קרא אליו בעה”ב ואמר לו: “בני; ומה נשמע מהתפקידים שמסרתי בידך, ושקבלת אותם בכל כך שמחה? הקיימת אותם?” ענה לו “בודאי דודי הטוב, קיימתים כאשר הבטחתי.” שאל העשיר- “ואיך עשית בני, הגד נא לי.” אמר לו; “בכל יום קראתי את הדברים שכתבת עבורי על הגליון, עד שאני זוכרם היטב בעל פה, והנני לקרוא אותם תיכף לפניך, כי הנם נכונים יחדיו על שפתי,” וכן עשה, וקרא לפניו את כל הסדר שצוהו. הוסיף העשיר לשאול: “האם עשית ממש בידיך כמו שציויתי עליך בסדר הזה?” אמר לו; “לא, אלא קיימתי רצונך במה שחזרתי על הסדר כשפתי בכל יום.” אמר לו; “הוי שוטה, וכי עבור קריאת הסדר תבקש את המתנה החשובה ההיא שהבטחתיך? הלא לא רשמתי לך את הסדר רק כדי שתדע מה לעשות ולקיים רצוני אבל לא בקריאה לבד הוא רצוני.”
הנמשל, כמובן, כאשר נדייק בדברי ר’ יוחנן: כ”ז שישראל יעשו כסדר הזה אני מוחל להם אבל לא בקריאה לבד. ((“חסד לאברהם,” ירושלים, דפוס העברי של יחיאל ורקר, דרוש ב’, עמ’ י-20, בהערה.(
… After a while, the boss called him over and said to him: “My son, how are things going with the various jobs/responsibilities I gave you, and you received them with such happiness- did you implement them?” He answered him: “Of course, my kind uncle, I implemented them just as I promised.” The rich man asked: “And how did you fulfill them, my son – please tell me!” He said to him: “Each day, I read the things you wrote on that document, till I know them by heart and I am about to read them before you, as they are clearly at the tip of my tongue,” and do he proceeded to do, reading all that was on that he commanded him to do. The rich asked: “Did you actually do anything that I commanded you in that document?” He answered: “No, rather I fulfilled your wish in that I reviewed the document each day so that it was clearly on my lips ” He said to him: You are a fool! Do you think that for reading the document you’re going to receive the special gift I promised you? I wrote it all down for you, in order for you do implement and do what I commanded. But reading it only is not my will!”
The moral of the analogy is clear, if we are precise in the words of R’ Yochanan As long as Israel actually do the above order I forgive them, but not by merely reading it. (“Chesed LeAvraham”, Jerusalem, Hebrew press of Yechiel Worker, Derush 2, page י-20, in the footnote)
If we make the effort to fulfill this custom to say Slichot, and go over these Thirteen Attributes consistently, we dare not think, even for a moment, that they are a Magic potion of sorts, in which you say them and poof- you are forgiven! Rather, they are meant to be said/sung, reiterated, but more critical-practiced, both in and out of shul!
That was the contract that G-d made with the Jewish people “each time they sin; if they thereafter act merciful, G-d will too. If not, they will be held to the highest order of the law. As in this story bought my our sages;
ביומי דר’ תנחומא היו צריכין ישראל למטרא. אתון לגביה, ואמרין ליה; “רבי! גזר תעניתא דייחות מטרא!” גזר תעניתא פעם ראשונה ושניה, ולא ירדו גשמים. פעם שלישית קם ודרש, אמר לון; “כל עמא יפליגון מצוה.”…. קם חד גבר…פגעה ביה משבקתיה….כיון שראה אותה ערומה ובצרה גדולה נתמלא עליה רחמים ונתן לה…. חד גבר סליק, וא”ל לרבי תנחומא; “רבי- את הכא ועבירה הכא” א”ל-
“מה חמית?” א”ל- “חמית גבר פלן דמשתעי למשבקתיה…” שלח ר’ תנחומא ואייתיתיה, וא”ל “ברי את ידע דעלמא קאי בצערא ובריאתה קיימא בצערא ואזלת ואשתעית עם משבקתך, ולא עוד אלא דיהבת לה פריטין …?” א”ל- “ולא כך דרשת “ומבשרך לא תתעלם?” את אמרת “כל עמא יפקון ויפלגון מצוה קאים אנא למפלגה מצוה.” פגעת בי משבקתי….כיון שראיתיה ערומה ובצרה גדולה, נתמלאתי עליה רחמים ונתתי לה על שום “ומבשרך לא תתעלם!” באותה שעה הגביה רבי תנחומא פניו לשמים ואמר לפני הקב”ה; “רבש”ע! מה אם זה שהוא בשר ודם ואכזרי ולא היה עליו מזונותיה נתמלא עליה רחמים ונתן לה, אנו שאנו בני בניך בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב ומזונותינו עליך עאכ”ו שתתמלא עלינו רחמים?!” באותה שעה ירדו גשמים ונתרווח העולם. (ויקרא רבה, פרשת בהר פרשה לד/י”ד )
In the time of Rabbi Tanchuma, there was a drought. The people came to the rabbi and asked him to declare a public fast. He did so twice and no rain fell. During the Third he got went and spoke before the people, saying; “All the nation, fill yourselves with Mitzvot”….One man arose…and bumped into his divorced wife….because he saw her not clothed properly and in great distress, he had compassion on her and gave her … One man saw this and told Rabbi Tanchuma; “Rabbi, you are here and can tolerate such ] He said; “What have you seen?” He answered; “I saw So-and-so give his divorced wife money…” He summoned him and asked him, “My son, don’t you see were are in great distress and the world is in distress, and you go to your Divorced wife, and yet even give her money…! He retorted; “Rabbi- isn’t this what you preached; “And you shall not ignore your own flesh?” You said “All the nation, fill yourselves with Mitzvot.” I then bumped in to my ex-wife…. because I saw her not clothed properly and in great distress, I had compassion on her and gave her as you said; “and you shall not ignore your own flesh!” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Tanchuma turned his face upward to heaven, and exclaimed to the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe! This man, upon whom this woman has no claim for sustenance, saw her in distress and was filled with compassion for her. We, who are Your children, the children of Your beloved ones, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and you are responsible for our sustenance, how much more should You be filled with compassion for us!’ Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed relief.” . Even though we are primarily judged for our relationship with G-d during these days, the Rambam suggests actions in the realm of interpersonal relationships, as the function of a favorable judgment before G-d, as the latter is dependent on the former: the judgment we judge our fellow Jews around us dictate how G-d will judge us.
This would perhaps explain why these Thirteen-Attributes can only be said within a Minyan, the famous quorum of 10; the intent is not to say them, but rather to act in accordance with them. Thus, it should be said with fellow Jews surrounding the individual Jew, as these Thirteen will be acted upon in our relationships with them.
Therefore, we repeat and reiterate these Thirteen; they are not a Magic wand and far from an ATM Machine. They are repeated, as repetition will hopefully allow it to stick clearly in our minds, and internalize its content in the way we conduct ourselves. It’s not enough to say the words “Merciful and Compassionate,” but rather we must become one’s who are and act “Merciful and Compassionate!” Once we live with mercy and forgive easily, G-d promised, in a Divine covenant, that he too will judge us with mercy and forgive.
If we forgive, we will be forgiven. If we will be easy going so will G-d. In the words of the Talmud;
כל המעביר על מדותיו, מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו, שנאמר “נשא עון ועבר על פשע” (מיכה ז:יח) – למי “נושא עון”? למי שעובר על פשע. (ראש השנה יז.)
Whoever lets things “slide” a bit, G-d will also let his sins “slide,” as it says, “He allows the sin to slide, and passes over the transgression” (Micha 7:18). For whom does G-d let the “sin slide”? For those who themselves slide over transgressions done to them. (Rosh Hashana 17a.)
To quote, but a few; Devarim 4/37-“ and because He loved your forefathers and chose their seed after them, and He brought you out of Egypt before Him with His great strength,” 7/8-” But because of the Lord’s love for you, and because He keeps the oath He swore to your forefathers, the Lord took you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt,” and many more.
I.e.-like any good jingle that one remembers due to repetition. I heard many times from my Bible-Teacher, David Nativ, which Moshe our Teacher too seemed to have used this method, repeating various themes time and again through the book of Devarim, his long-Farwell Speech. For example, the command to “love” G-d serve G-d with all our heart & soul and many more.
For further exploration on this theme, see the book “Ahavat Chesed” by the Chafetz Chaim where he explains that this is the reason why the prophet Micha states that one should engage in “אהבת חסד”/”Loving Kindness” and not just “חסד”/”Kindness,” as fulfilling and doing acts of kindness to others is not, in his opinion, a full fulfillment of this Mitzva. Rather, we must become one who “loves doing Chesed,” as the after mentioned verse states, thus giving charity with a smile generously offering a ride etc.’ Thus, the Book of Mitzvot of the “Sefer HaChinuch,” Mitzva 479, states that one is not only obligated to give Tzedaka, but rather: “לעשות צדקה עם הצריך אליה בשמחה ובטוב לבב”/”To fulfill the of Tzedakah, with those that needs it, in happiness and a good heart!”
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