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Invoking the Thirteen Attributes

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Following God's promise not to destroy the Jewish people, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses requested that God make known to him the qualities of Divine mercy. In response, God showed Moses a prophetic vision, in which He was wrapped in a Tallit as a communal prayer leader, while reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 17b). God informed Moses that whenever the Jewish people sin in the future, they should recite the Thirteen Attributes, and He will forgive them. Moses subsequently employed the Thirteen Attributes during the second and third 40-day periods on Mount Sinai, which culminated with the atonement on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yehudah in the Talmud adds that a covenant exists concerning these Thirteen Attributes, guaranteeing their effectiveness forever. The Brisker Rav explains that all the mercy that the Jewish people would require until the final redemption was, as it were, deposited into an account at that time, to be withdrawn when necessary. Today, writes Rabbeinu Bachaye, we are without the Holy Temple, without a High Priest, and without the sacrifices to aid in atoning for our sins. All that is left is the ability to invoke these Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy in our prayers. Though we do not understand the true nature of these terms, and we lack the perception of how they affect the Heavenly realms, still they remain the key with which to open the gates of mercy in every generation for both the community and the individual.

There are two basic opinions as to how the Thirteen Attributes work. According to some commentators (Tzror Hamor, Reishis Chochmah and Alshich), the mere recitation of these attributes is not enough. One must accompany their recitation with action by emulating these attributes in his relationships with his fellow man. (Rabbi Moses Cordevero in the first chapter of Tomer Devorah gives guidance as to how to integrate these attributes into one's interpersonal relationships.) For this reason, says the Ma'or Vashemesh, these Divine attributes are only recited in a minyan. It is difficult for any one individual to embody and apply all of these attributes in his personal life. However, among a congregation, all of the attributes can be found.

The prophetic vision of God wrapped in a Tallit relates to this need to emulate His Attributes by reminding us of our obligation to perform all the Mitzvot. The Tallit hints to the fact that one must clothe himself in these attributes and not merely recite them.

Ibn Ezra asks why we wear a large Tallit only during prayer (while otherwise we wear a small fringed garment underneath our shirt). Would it not be more logical to wear a reminder of God's Mitzvot when engaged in our mundane pursuits? The wearing of a Tallit addresses the danger that one will mistakenly think that the words of prayer are enough to effect Divine mercy. The Tallit reminds us that lip service alone is not effective. One must live and fulfill that which his prayers represent.

The second line of opinion (Tzedah Laderech and Bnei Yissachar) views recitation of the Thirteen Divine Attributes as effective by itself. They point to the fact that the first three attributes, according to many opinions, are proper names of God which do not lend themselves to emulation.

Two questions must be addressed according to the opinion that the mere recitation is effective. First, how can mere recital of words be effective? And if it can, how can we reconcile this to the fact that these attributes are often recited without any noticeable result? The Maharal answers the first question. Even if recitation is sufficient, he writes, it must be with concentration, intention and understanding. This is hinted to by the wrapping of the Tallit over one's head. The Tallit signifies concentration and the banishment of outside distractions.

The recitation of these attributes creates a period of Divine favor and grace brought about by recitation of the Divine Attributes (Malbim). In this respect, the Heavenly Kingdom patterns itself after the earthly kingdom: the periods of Divine favor and grace, parallel those times when an earthly king grants pardons not mandated by the law (Netziv). There are, says Ramchal, two types of Divine Providence, on in which God has, as it were, subjugated Himself to a system of reward and punishment dependant on man's conduct, and another where God acts independent of man's worthiness.

We can elucidate this last idea as follows: The entire creation was designed so that God could shower good on man, the ultimate good being the experience of the Divine Presence. To that end, God created a physical world in which man can earn this reward and develop his relationship with God through Torah and mitzvot. At the same time, God created an intricate system of reward and punishment through which His kindness is funneled.

Under normal circumstances, kindness outside this system would be detrimental to man, for it would suggest to him that justice does not exist and one can receive good without deserving it. That would obscure recognition of God. However, there are times when the application of justice would permanently impair kindness and thus place the entire purpose of creation in jeopardy. At such times, God chooses to let us know that He exists by showering upon us undeserved kindness beyond our understanding.

But to receive this undeserved beneficence, we must first recognize that this mercy and kindness emanates from God and is not an indication (God forbid) of a random universe and refutation of God's control over the world. Hence, the necessity to recite these attributes with intention and concentration to bring about this period of favor.

Although there is a covenant that the recitation of these attributes is always effective, this depends, according to the first opinion, on our emulation of these attributes and, according to the second opinion, on their being said with concentration, intention and understanding. Though a proper recitation of the Divine Attributes is always effective according to the Vilna Gaon, sometimes the effect only results in mitigation of the Divine decree, not its complete annulment (Tzedah Laderech). That is why we sometimes fail to see the effect of the recitation.

We are now in the midst of trying times for the Jewish people, a time in which we need Divine mercy. Let us attempt to recite, learn and live these Divine Attributes of Mercy - and thereby fulfill all these various opinions - so that we can partake of the abundant wellsprings of Divine mercy already prepared for us, and effect a period of Divine favor and grace.

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