Rabbi Grunstein


The Secret to Forgiveness

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein

Director of Training and Placement, Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs

During the High-Holiday period, when Slichot[1] are recited rather, THE REFRAIN that we repeat endlessly are the famous “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” starting with the know words of “Hashem Hashem, Kel, Rachum, Vechanun”/” G-d, G-d, benevolent G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious.” Saying it so many times, while other part of the liturgy changes, begs one to wonder why it is repeated so recurrently.

The source of this 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 [Shemot 34/4-10.] Thus, it’s no wonder that these thirteen-words are central when asking for forgiveness following sin. However, our sages actually added a rather amazing, yet peculiar power to these words, sort of turning them into a “secret potion” to attain forgiveness:

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 shawl/Tallit around Him like the Leader of Congregation [i.e. – like a Chazzan putting a Tallit over his head,] and showed Moshe the order of prayer. G-d said to Moshe: Whenever Israel sins, 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.)

How are we understand this “automatic ATM-Machine” where we put in these thirteen words, and in return, receive forgiveness?  Can it be that simple: sin, say these 13 and poof-your forgiven?

Explains the “Shelah[2] that there is no magic, nor short-cuts to attain forgiveness.  Rather, he asserts, we have to pay attention to the precise wording our sages used in the above Talmudic passage;

….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 [passage] is rather difficult; after all, we see many a time that we say these Thirteen Attributes, and they are not answered [favorably?] Rather, these Geonim explain, that the meaning of [the words] “let them carry out/do this service” is not [just] to cover yourself in a Tallit, but rather “to carry out”/”do” these attributes that G-d taught Moshe; 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.)

Accordingly, the sages NOT telling us to “say” these words, but rather to practice them in our own lives. For example, it’s imperative to be “merciful” as this is one of the attributes:

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 [i.e. – Mankind] be compassionate and gracious (Tractate Sofrim 3/17)

Thus, it’s not the words, per-se, and not even the actual recital of them that would be the “magic-wand” which would give us automatic forgiveness, something rather far from a serious, non-primitive religion as Judaism!  Rather, it’s the actions and thought-process that we should be doing:

  • Are we merciful and kind, or do we ONLY go by the “letter of the law?”
  • Are we generous with our time & money [volunteering to various causes, even though we don’t “have to,” and maybe at times that are not convenient?]
  • Do we smile and greet people we don’t know on the street[3]] or are we the very opposite, being punctilious with the people that we come in contact with?

If we are practicing the thirteen attributes we often say, then, and only then, will G-d forgive us, being merciful to us…exactly as we are to others. Conversely, 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 form of a story, by the famed “Chafetz-Chaim ” [as recorded by his son in law, Rav Aharon] explaining [as the Shela”h above] why do many have said these words and yet were not forgiven with the following analogy;

A rich man had many businesses, and many Jew made a living from these businesses. One time, his nephew came to him from afar, and asked him for a job at one of his businesses, so that he would have a means to make a living. The rich man [i.e.- his uncle] fulfilled his request, and gave him different responsibilities in his businesses…and decided on his monthly salary, and added this faithful promise: “When time passes, and I see that you fulfilled all that I told you to do without fail, I’ll add an important gift [i.e.- a bonus] as well.” In order for him to remember all his responsibilities, the rich man wrote them down in a document, and gave him the document so that he can go over it verbally a few times so that he remembers them. Of course, the poor [nephew] accepted the above with much motivation and happiness, and repeatedly thanked the rich [uncle] for his generous heart and his faithful promise. 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 knew them by heart and I am about to read them before you, as they are clearly at the tip of my tongue.” He proceeded to do so, reading all that was on that he commanded him to do. The rich [man] 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 [i.e. – knowing it by heart.]” 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 [in the after mentioned Talmudic passage;] As long as Israel actually do the above order, G-d says “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 JUST say the Thirteen Attributes, we dare not think that they lead us on a path to automatic forgiveness. Rather, they are meant to be reiterated, but more importantly, practiced; if we act merciful, G-d will too. If not, we will be held to the highest order of the law.

It’s therefore no wonder that, when the Rambam gives ideas as to how to have G-d judge us in a positive light on these “High Holy Days,” he suggests that we engage, among other things, in צדקה ומעשים טובים, charity and good deeds[4]. Even though we are primarily judged for our relationship with G-d during these days, the Rambam suggests engaging in actions in the realm of interpersonal relationships, as the function of a favorable judgment before G-d is dependent upon the treatment we offer to our fellow Jews around us.

This would further explain why these Thirteen-Attributes can only be said [in form of a prayer] within a Minyan/quorum of 10[5]; the intent is not to say them, but rather to practice them. Thus, it should be said with fellow Jews surrounding the individual, as these Thirteen will hopefully be practiced in our relationship towards them.

Therefore, we repeat and reiterate these Thirteen, as repetition will hopefully allow it to stick clearly in our minds, and internalize its content in the way we conduct ourselves practically. 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![6]”  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 [i.e.- not looking at every little part of a suit being picked up from the dry-cleaner for missed stains, not counting every last coin of change, etc.,] 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/י”ח) – למי “נושא עון”? למי שעובר על פשע. (ראש השנה י”ז עמוד א’.)

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)

Indeed, such was what happened:

תנו רבנן מעשה ברבי אליעזר שגזר שלש עשרה תעניות על הצבור ולא ירדו גשמים. באחרונה התחילו הצבור לצאת. אמר להם: תקנתם קברים לעצמכם? געו כל העם בבכיה, וירדו גשמים. שוב מעשה ברבי אליעזר שירד לפני התיבה ואמר עשרים וארבע ברכות ולא נענה. ירד רבי עקיבא אחריו, ואמר: אבינו מלכנו אין לנו מלך אלא אתה. אבינו מלכנו למענך רחם עלינו, וירדו גשמים. הוו מרנני רבנן. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: לא מפני שזה גדול מזה, אלא שזה מעביר על מידותיו, וזה אינו מעביר על מדותיו. (מסכת תענית דף כה עמוד ב )

Our Rabbis have taught: It is related of R. Eliezer that he ordained thirteen fasts upon the community [due to a drought,] and no rain fell. In the end, as the people began to depart [from the synagogue], he exclaimed: “Have you prepared graves for yourselves“? [i.e. – as it hadn’t rained yet, how dare they leave the synagogue, pleading for it?] Thereupon the people sobbed loudly and rain fell. It is further related of R. Eliezer that once he stepped down before the Ark and recited the twenty-four benedictions [i.e. – 6 more than usual added for such an ad-hoc fast day,] and his prayer was not answered. R. Akiva stepped down after him and exclaimed: Our Father, our King, we have no King but you; our Father, our King, for your sake have mercy upon us; and rain fell. The Rabbis present suspected [R. Eliezer], whereupon a Heavenly Voice was heard proclaiming; “[The prayer of] this man [R. Akiva] was answered not because he is greater than the other man, but because he is allows more to “slide”/he’s more forbearing and the other is not. (Tractate Taanit 25b.)

The 13 attributes of mercy will “work” just as the manner we practice its message with one another: if we let things “slide,” not being so pedantic about every last crumb, G-d too will judge us in the same manner and forgive.

Excerpted from Rabbi Grunstein’s new book: “Beyond Routine,” [Urim Publications] scheduled for publication soon.

[1]  Code of Jewish Law, OC, 581/1.

[2] Acronym for his famous work, “Sheni Luchot HaBrit,” written by Rav Yishayahu Horowitz [1560-1630.]

[3]  Mishna, Tractate Avot 1/15 and 4/15, Tractate Berachot 17a, Rambam’s Code, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avel 14:1–2. See also my previous book, “Daven your Age” [Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem 2013, po  27-33] where I elaborate about the culture that I called “The Yasher-Koach Culture.” 

[4] Rambam’s Code, Laws of Teshuva 3/4.

[5] Code, OC, 565/5 and Mishna Berura ad-loc 12. However, if just read as a verse in the Torah, and not as a prayer, it of course can be read even by one who is not in a Minyan [ibid.]

[6] For further exploration on this theme, see the book “Ahavat Chesed” [published by “Ahavat Chesed, Jerusalem, 1960] by the Chafetz Chaim [Part 2/Chapter 1/1] where he explains that this is the reason why the prophet Micha states [Micha 6/8] that one should engage in “אהבת חסד”/”Loving Kindness” and not just “חסד”/”Kindness,” as just 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 aftermentioned verse states, thus generously offering a ride [and not just stopping your car for a Hitchhiker,] etc.’ Thus, the Book of Mitzvot of the “Sefer Hachinuch,” [Mitzva #479] states that one is not only obligated to give Tzedakah, but rather: “לעשות צדקה עם הצריך אליה בשמחה ובטוב לבב”/”To fulfill the [Mitzva] of Tzedakah, with those that needs it, in happiness and a good heart!”

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