Tuesday, January 27, 2009

13 Attributes

When I am going to lead services, I give a lot of thought and consult a lot of sources for the Dvar Torah. I’m always a little self-conscious about this part, because I don’t’ consider myself a scholar, and yet I want to have something valuable and relevant to say, beyond simply recounting the content of the Torah portion.

The last time I led services, the Torah portion, Ki Tisa, was an extremely difficult one. It includes the conclusion of the instructions for building the Mishkan, the tabernacle of worship, a strong repetition of the importance of Shabbat, Moses’ ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, the episode of the Golden Calf, and Moses’ breaking (or dropping) the tablets, repenting for the people, receiving the second tablets, and having God pass before him, declaring the 13 divine attributes that make repentance possible and cement the renewed covenant between God and Israel. Phew!

That’s a lot to deal with, and most of the sources I looked at seemed to concentrate on Shabbat as the key message. But I was taught to look at Torah portions as a whole, so I asked myself what to make of this sequence of events. The segue from the Mishkan to Shabbat seems to be an admonition that Shabbat was not to be broken, even for the building of the Mishkan, which God had given to Israel as a sacred and immediate mission.. So here we have the Hebrew people, as well as a group of non-Hebrews who came with them out of Egypt, just weeks away from the miracles of the plagues and the parting of the Sea, engaged with the charge from God to build a tabernacle, and with their leader, Moses, having ascended Mount Sinai and gone for 40 days, so they prevail upon Aaron to build “a god that can go before us.” He does, and when Moses comes down with the tablets he is enraged and, depending on the version of the story you read, smashes the tablets or drops them as they become too heavy to bear.

Moses then reascends the mountain and puts his life on the line with God to ask that the people be forgiven, which God grants. Moses then asks God to support his (Moses’) ability to lead by revealing to him a deeper insight into God’s nature and the Divine will – God tells Moses that he cannot see God directly, but will be allowed to see God’s “back” – the manifestations of God’s work. While Moses sees this, God speaks to him and declares His moral attributes:

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim rav chesed, v’emet. Notzer chesed la’alafim, noseh avon vafeshah, v’hata’ah vnakay.

The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and acquitting the penitent.

This new relationship between God and Moses renews and strengthens the covenant between God and Israel, even in the face of the people’s having strayed, and God gives Moses the second set of tablets that Moses brings back with radiant light coming from his face.

What do we make of all this? One thing I like to look at is where the various critical parts of the Torah show up in the liturgy of Shabbat and Holidays. At the start of the passage, we find the verse “you shall keep my Sabbath, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you…six days work shall be done; but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.” This verse is the basis of the v’shomru, which we sang earlier.

The 13 moral attributes of God occur often in services, and are central to the High Holiday liturgy. In fact some of the Rabbis trace the whole concept of t’shuvah, repentance, and the observance of Yom Kippur to this passage, where God, in the face of flagrant desecration by the Hebrew people, emphasizes not only His justice, but even moreso his mercy and willingness to “acquit the penitent.” Yet there is a balance here – the Rabbis explain that he 13th attribute is really venakkeh lo yenakkeh – venakkeh – acquitting the penitent, lo yenakkeh – but not acquitting the impenitent. God is merciful and forgiving, but also just and justice requires punishment under law and will not shield the wrongdoer from the consequences of his misdeeds, and the penalty may span generations. Indeed, God’s forgiveness comes only after the Levites have killed all those who worshipped the Golden Calf, because the penalty for idolatry is death.

Finally, we have the Haftarah, where Elijah challenges 450 priests of Baal to show which God is the true God by making a burnt offering with their God lighting the fire. After a day of trying and failing by the Baalites, Elijah soaks the sacrifice and the stone altar in water and calls upon God who consumes sacrifice, altar and all in fire, after which the assembled people proclaim “Adonai hu, ha-Elohim! Adonai hu, ha-Elohim! Adonai hu, ha-Elohim!”, which is one of the final prayers of the Yom Kippur service.

So we have a God who is demanding yet compassionate, just, yet merciful, and who demands our allegiance while that the same time charging us with being “a nation of priests, a holy people.” The Rabbis teach that if we take the demand to be a holy people along with this passage, particularly the clear statement of the 13 moral attributes of God, what we have is the source of the principle of the imitation of God. We are to be like God, and this is how – by being merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth; just and forgiving, and to allow us the time for self-examination and contemplation of these principles, God has given us Shabbat as a weekly pause to remember what is important, and I can think of no better way to honor that gift than to come to services.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you.