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               THE THIRTEEN ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY 

                     by HaRav Yehuda Amital



	'And God passed before him and proclaimed...' Rabbi 
	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 God enwrapped Himself like the sheliach 
	tzibbur (prayer leader) of a congregation and showed 
	Moshe the order of prayer.  He said to him:  Whenever 
	Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, 
	and I will forgive them. (Rosh Hashana 17b)

	The Torah writes "And He passed over" (VaYaavor) - which 
implies that God did not make do with words alone.  In order 
to teach Moshe this essential concept of forgiveness through 
enwrapping oneself like a sheliach tzibbur (atifa), God 
physically demonstrated the act.  What is the meaning of this 
atifah?  Atifah hides the personality of the sheliach tzibbur; 
it conceals him.  Any individual can pray without a tallit 
over his head; but the sheliach tzibbur must cover his head.  
Only then can he serve as an emissary of the community.

	Sometimes, atifah can silence any attempt to pray.  This 
is the kind of atifah which causes one to "enter into the rock 
and hide in the dust for fear of God and for the glory of His 
majesty" (Isaiah 2:10).  A person who conceals himself in the 
underground tunnels amongst the rocks for fear of facing God, 
stands totally helpless before Him.  However, there is another 
kind of atifah, that of the sheliach tzibbur, who conceals his 
entire personality, lowers his stature, and at the same time 
lives continually with a sense of mission and responsibility 
towards the community.  Only then may he recite the Thirteen 
Attributes of Mercy.

	To become a sheliach tzibbur in this sense, one must 
understand how God leads and guides His world and thus 
discover how a Jew should be seen by others.  Every Jew must 
be a leader, each one of us must be responsible for the entire 
community.  This is achieved through identification with God's 
attributes, which constitute his relationship with the 
community of Am Yisrael.  In order to empathize with God's 
attributes, it is enough to identify with the first one, which 
the Kabbalists linked to the verse "Who is a God like You" 
(Micha 7:18).  Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (in his Tomer Devora) 
expounds:

	'Who is a God like You' - This attribute refers to the 
	Holy One as a tolerant King Who bears insult in a manner 
	beyond human understanding.  Without doubt, nothing is 
	hidden from His view.  In addition, there is not a moment 
	that man is not nourished and sustained by virtue of the 
	Divine power bestowed upon him. 

	Thus, no man ever sins against God, without - at that 
	very moment - God bestowing abundant vitality upon him, 
	giving him the power to move his limbs.  Yet even though 
	a person uses this very vitality to transgress, God does 
	not withhold it from him.  Rather, He suffers this insult 
	and continues to enable his limbs to move.  Even at the 
	very moment that a person uses that power for 
	transgression, sin, and infuriating deeds, the Holy One 
	bears them patiently... 

	...This, then, is a virtue man should emulate - namely, 
	tolerance.  Even when he is insulted to the degree 
	mentioned above he should not withdraw his benevolence 
	from those upon whom he bestows it. 

	Only when man has enwrapped himself like a sheliach 
tzibbur, when his personality, his ego, does not exist, when 
his whole being is like that of a sheliach tzibbur - only then 
can he emulate God's tolerance.  And if we succeed in 
emulating God's relationship with His people, we are assured 
forgiveness for our sins.

	The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (1:2) states that on the Day 
of Judgment "All creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron."  
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) explains:

	Like Bnei Maron - IN BAVEL it was translated, 'like a 
	flock of sheep' [Rashi - like lambs counted for the 
	animal tithe, which are counted one by one as they pass 
	through a small opening].  RESH LAKISH said:  As in the 
	ascent of Beit Maron [a textual variant reads 'Beit 
	Choron':  Rashi - a narrow pass where wayfarers had to 
	proceed in single file, since the valley was deep on both 
	sides].  RAV YEHUDA SAID IN THE NAME OF SHEMUEL:  Like 
	the troops of the House of David [Rashi - (which pass in 
	review one by one) as they go out to battle]. 

	All three of these explanations express the experience of 
a man standing alone before the Throne of Glory.  Generally, a 
person is able to console himself by virtue of his membership 
in the community.  When he contemplates the tzibbur as a 
whole, he sees that he is not so bad.  He integrates himself 
into the community, and does not stand out as being so much 
worse than everyone else.  The Mishna states:  "On Rosh 
Hashana all creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron", one by 
one; God assesses each person and looks in all those corners 
that he himself has no wish to bring to light, at all those 
points which he is trying to hide; but "if a person will hide 
himself away - will I not see him?"

	One opinion states that each individual comes for 
judgment alone, by himself, just as lambs are counted for 
tithing.  The other Amoraim add the fear of judgment that 
accompanies this phenomenon - as in the ascent of Beit Choron 
- where the chasm yawns beneath him.  Man must climb alone, up 
a steep ascent, while at every moment the danger of falling 
into the abyss seems imminent.

	Rav Yehuda is not satisfied with this.  He likens the 
experience to that of soldiers of the House of David who go 
forth with the awareness that there can be no battle without 
casualties!

	And yet, the above Gemara continues, "Rav Yochanan said:  
[All the same,] they are all viewed together...[as it says,] 
'He fashions their hearts TOGETHER, He who considers ALL their 
deeds.'"  We may also be judged as a community, and thus draw 
God's mercy down upon us.  How can we accomplish this task?  
If a person is able to enwrap himself as a sheliach tzibbur, 
to conceal his personality, to feel with every fiber of his 
being a sense of communal responsibility, and thus to proclaim 
the Thirteen Attributes - then "a covenant has been made that 
they will not be turned away empty-handed".

	This feeling of responsibility and mission must pervade 
our self-assessment.  In the words of the Gemara (Kiddushin 
40b):  "A person should always see himself [and the whole 
world] as half guilty and half innocent ...  If he does one 
mitzva - happy is he for having tilted himself and the entire 
world to the side of merit.  If he transgresses one aveira - 
woe is he for having tilted himself and the entire world to 
the side of guilt..."  A person must live with the sensation 
that an isolated act of his can cause revolutions and decide 
the fate of the entire world.  With the sense that one's 
actions will affect the fate of the community, we may recite 
the Thirteen Attributes and merit God's mercy.

	The first two attributes of God are "Hashem, Hashem" - "I 
am He before man sins, and I am He after he has sinned and 
done Teshuva".  Why is there a need for mercy BEFORE the sin?  
A person may feel that he is unworthy of acting as a sheliach 
tzibbur.  He might ask himself:  "Am I able to carry the 
responsibility for an entire world upon my puny shoulders?  
Surely I am as grave a sinner as any."  Therefore we must 
respond:  God was also there before the sin, and saw to it 
that no Jew would be able to distance himself to such an 
extent that he would be incapable of returning to God!  This 
is the meaning of "I am Hashem before he sins."

	We now stand before the Day of Judgment, knocking on 
God's doors, "as beggars and paupers".  We have come to beg 
God to "hear our jubilation (rina) and prayer."  There are two 
types of prayer: the prayer of jubilation, and the prayer 
which is akin to "the prayer of a pauper when he faints 
(ya'atof)" (Tehillim 102:1).  ["Ya'atof" can also be 
translated "enwraps."]  Rina abounds when a person thanks God 
for everything that has passed, and requests:  "Keep this 
forever".  But there is another aspect of prayer, "A prayer of 
the afflicted when he faints (or enwraps)", when a person  - 
as the Zohar describes  King David - removes his crown, 
divests himself of his royal robes, covers himself with 
sackcloth, sits on the ground, and utters: "Master of the 
Universe, I am poor and lowly!"

	"I am poor and lowly."  There are times when prayer is 
that of "the pauper when he faints".  Man is likened to a 
fleeting breath.  He is like broken shard and like a passing 
dream.

	But a prayer of the pauper before he faints is so, first 
and foremost, because of his frustration.  How optimistically 
he viewed things at the start of the year, and yet the year 
has passed, and a person searches in vain for his 
accomplishments.  Has he achieved even half of what he had 
hoped for?  It is this same frustration which forms the basis 
of the month of Ellul.  The Tur explains this idea (beginning 
of Siman 585) in the name of Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer.  After 
the sin of the Golden Calf, that same immense frustration was 
felt by Am Yisrael.  Just a few weeks earlier, the angels 
themselves had harbored jealousy towards Am Yisrael!  When 
Moshe ascended Har Sinai for the second time, on Rosh Chodesh 
Ellul, God commanded him to cause the shofar to be blown in 
the camp.  This was to warn them not to stray after idolatry.  
Therefore, Chazal enacted that the shofar be blown annually on 
Rosh Chodesh Ellul and throughout the entire month, to warn us 
to repent.

	The Jewish people at that time experienced that same 
feeling of frustration, of broken-heartedness.  They had 
reached the heights of spirituality when Moshe first ascended 
the mount - and yet they fell from the highest levels to the 
lowest depths.  And so Moshe Rabbeinu ascended that same 
height once again, vividly recalling the exalted joy of his 
first climb.  Yet, alas, he had to ascend once more and begin 
again, only forty days later.  This is the experience of 
Ellul.

	We could have lived and experienced the spectacle of the 
Giving of the Torah all year long.  The Gemara relates how 
certain Tannaim studied Torah while a fire raged around them.  
They said:  Why be amazed?  Was not the Torah itself given in 
fire!  At that time, the Words were as joyous as when they 
were given on Sinai.

	And yet we cannot always maintain the link between our 
prayers for spiritual heights, and our everyday lives.  We 
pray every day:  "Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, and cause 
our hearts to cleave to Your mitzvot".  However, if - God 
forbid - the prayer  stands by itself, and when we understand 
words of Torah, we fail to connect between our prayer and our 
achievements in learning - then we risk losing the ability to 
experience the raging fire of Torah from Sinai.

	We can sit in the Beit HaMidrash and learn, and 
experience the sweetness of Torah - and yet lose the link 
between prayer and learning.  For when a person removes the 
tallit from his head, he sees his "self" reflected everywhere 
he turns, and it becomes difficult for him to refrain from 
revealing his own individuality.  It becomes almost impossible 
to remain a "sheliach tzibbur" throughout the day.

	And so, our prayer is the "prayer of the pauper who 
enwraps himself."  Needy and destitute, we knock on God's 
doors, full of frustration over the  distance between our 
prayer and our reality.  However, this very prayer of poverty 
and frustration can also redeem us.  If we empathize totally 
with this aspect of being paupers, we sense how wholly poor 
and empty we really are, this can push us to completely enwrap 
ourselves and live with the perception of being a sheliach 
tzibbur. In no other period of our history was Am Yisrael so 
desperately in need of a leader.  No one may divest himself of 
the obligation to enwrap himself, and to live as a sheliach 
tzibbur.

	We live with this sensation of "the prayer of a pauper".  
In this manner we will knock on God's doors, contemplate the 
Thirteen Attributes, and thus we will attain emulation of God.  
With God's help, we will not be turned away empty-handed.  In 
this spirit we draw near to pray and to recite the Thirteen 
Attributes.  We will request mercy for ourselves and for the 
entire Jewish People.  We must search our hearts and ask 
ourselves honestly if we have risen to the tasks that we took 
upon ourselves.  Have others really seen us as Bnei Torah in 
every step we have made, at home, in the army, in the Beit 
HaMidrash, on the street?

	If our prayer is coupled with sincere self-examination 
and renewed desire to act as leaders of our people, then a 
covenant has been made that we will not be turned away empty-
handed.  God will fulfill our requests, and we will merit 
forgiveness and mercy, and a year of life and peace - for us 
and for all the Jewish People.


(A Sicha originally delivered on the first night of Selichot, 
Ellul 5745 ([1985]. Translated by Simon M Jackson)


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