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Rosh Hashanah 17

The 13 attributes of mercy.

The sin of the Golden Calf, related in Exodus 32, is remembered as the worst communal sin in the Torah. Moses has shepherded the people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, but as soon as he ascends Sinai to receive the law, the people become agitated. They demand that Aaron, Moses’ brother and second in command, build them an idol. At the same moment Moses is receiving the divine law, the people are found carousing around their new golden god.

Seeing this, God is incensed and threatens to kill the entire people, with the intention of starting a whole new nation with just Moses. In a poignant moment, Moses calms God down and saves the Israelites from obliteration. Then, Moses comes down from Sinai and lets loose: He smashes the tablets of the commandments, burns down the idol, mixes the ashes with water and forces the Israelites to drink it. He next rallies those who are still faithful to God to massacre the rest. Finally, amid the carnage, Moses re-ascends Sinai and more or less demands that God forgive the people — which God does.

In the wake of all of this, there is a great need for healing, on all sides. Exodus 34, which documents much of the aftermath, recounts an intimate encounter between God and Moses:

God came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name God. (Exodus 34:5). 

It is a moment of unprecedented physical closeness, and it goes on:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.

These words — sometimes referred to as the 13 Attributes of Mercy — are an indelible part of our Selichot and Yom Kippur liturgy. We recite them leading up to and throughout the holiday, reminding ourselves and God of the promise of divine mercy. Moses leans into these words, and is comforted.

On today’s daf, the rabbis investigate the remarkable image the Torah paints in this scene, of God passing directly before Moses:

“And God passed by before him…” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yohanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this.

The verse is theologically problematic because it places God not just in physical proximity to Moses, but on an equal or lesser plane. On yesterday’s daf, we read that on Rosh Hashanah people pass before God (like sheep streaming past a shepherd) to be judged. Here, it is God who passes before Moses.

This is not the proper order of things. Yet, despite the ways in which this image is problematic for talmudic theology, it is canonized in the Torah. And since it is, as Rabbi Yohanan states, we can accept that such a thing is possible.

As we embrace this image, we might as well also make use of our midrashic imagination and see where that takes us. That’s exactly what the Gemara does: 

God wrapped himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader.

Does this make the problem better? In some ways, it presents God even more intimately. If it’s problematic to suggest that God passed before Moses, shouldn’t it be problematic to say that God put on a tallit?

It turns out, as some may recall from Tractate Berakhot, the rabbis are actually plenty comfortable with anthropomorphic images of God. But this one seems to come out of nowhere. Where did they come up with it? 

The image comes from a play on words. The verb that the Torah uses to describe God’s passing before Moses, va’ya’avor, is the same verb that is used to describe a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader, who approaches the lectern. So this verb suggests to the rabbis that we might, in this moment, envision God as a shaliach tzibbur. This midrash continues in this vein:

God showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. And then God said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before me in accordance with this order. Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the 13 attributes of mercy, and I will forgive them.

In addition to giving midrashic color to the human-divine encounter of Exodus 34, this midrash gives that encounter a whole new meaning. Now God is not just forgiving Israel once and repairing the relationship in that moment, but God is giving Moses and the people tools to repair it in the future. Because mistakes will happen again. Repair will be necessary again. This is why we recite the 13 Attributes as part of our Selichot (forgiveness) liturgy — because using these words helps ensure God’s forgiveness. Just as it worked for the people at Mount Sinai, so too, we hope it will work for us today.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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