In the past few weeks we have been discussing how we recovered from the Cheit HaEigel to the extent that Hashem forgave us and presented us with a second set of Luchot. We have noted that Chazal teach that we received the second Luchot on Yom Kippur, thereby designating this day as the time for Teshuvah and reconciliation with Hashem. We also noted that because of this, a way to appreciate the significance of Yom Kippur is to closely examine the background to the first Yom Kippur. We suggested that we could discern six stages in our recovery from the Cheit HaEigel. This week we shall conclude with a discussion of what we will regard as the sixth stage of this process.
Stage Six – Hashem Changes to Middat HaRachamim
We noted last week that Moshe Rabbeinu makes an unbelievable demand of Hashem on behalf of Bnei Yisrael. He tells Hashem that if He will not accompany us into Eretz Yisrael, He should not bother to bring us out of the Midbar (desert). Rav Menachem Liebtag explains beautifully that Moshe is prompting Hashem to change from His mode of strict judgment (Middat Hadin) to the somewhat more flexible and lenient approach of Middat HaRachamim. Recall that Hashem has told Moshe Rabbeinu that He cannot accompany us personally, as it were, into Eretz Yisrael, since when we sin He would then have to punish us severely. The only way to avoid this is for Hashem to distance Himself from us.
Moshe Rabbeinu is nudging Hashem to find an alternative solution, essentially telling Hashem that His offer is unacceptable! Indeed, the only way that Hashem can accompany us into Eretz Yisrael is for Him to change the manner in which He relates to us. Thus, in stage six we find Hashem willing to change modalities and deal with us in a manner of Middat HaRachamim. As a result of this change, it becomes a viable option for Hashem to accompany us to Eretz Yisrael, to which He gives His consent (34: 11).
It should be strongly, emphasized, though, that Hashem changes His mode not simply because of Moshe Rabbeinu’s fine negotiating skills. Rather, the true motivation seems to be the changed behavior of Bnei Yisrael.
The Thirteen Attributes of Rachamim
At the point when Hashem has changed into the Middat HaRachamim mode, He expresses this new approach through the Thirteen Middot HaRachamim (34:6-7). Rav Leibtag explains these thirteen attributes in a most beautiful manner. He asserts that one can appreciate these Middot by contrasting the manner in which heretofore He had been relating to us. For example, the Middah of “Keil Rachum VeChanun,” “the merciful and compassionate God“ contrasts with the manner in which Hashem presented Himself in the Asseret HaDibrot (20:5) – “Keil Kanah,” “a jealous God.” In the Asseret HaDibrot (Shemot 20:7), Hashem states that He will not cleanse (“Lo Yenakeh”), but here He presents Himself as “VeNakeih,” “He will cleanse.”
It is vital to note, however, that judging in a manner of Middat HaRachamim does not mean that Hashem will forego any accountability. A contrast with the Asseret HaDibrot will help illustrate this point. In the Asseret HaDibrot (20:6), Hashem states that He will “deal kindly to those who love Me and observe My laws.” However, in the Thirteen Middot HaRachamim, Hashem places no such limitation and simply presents Himself as “Rav Chessed Ve’Emet,” “abundant in kindness and truth,” apparently even to those who do not yet love Hashem and observe His Mitzvot.
Despite His willingness to show kindness to all, Hashem balances His kindness with truth. Thus, one cannot sin with impunity, but rather Hashem will be patient (“Erech Apayim;” contrast with 32:10: “VeYichar Api Va’achaleim”) and give the sinner a chance to repent, before He will hold him accountable for his misdeeds. Indeed, Hashem presents Himself as “VeNakeih Lo Yenakeh,” “He will cleanse and He will not cleanse.” Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that He will cleanse those who engage in Teshuvah, but He will not cleanse those who fail to take advantage of that extraordinary opportunity.
Moreover, in Devarim 4:34 we find what appears to be an astonishing phenomenon. Moshe Rabbeinu, forty years after the Cheit HaEigel, presents Hashem as Keil Kanah! This is utterly shocking in light of the fact that Hashem has said that He has moved away from the pre-Cheit HaEigel “Keil Kanah” approach. The answer seems to be that Moshe Rabbeinu warns us that Hashem will revert to Middat Hadin mode if we regress into sin. Our Teshuvah after the Cheit HaEigel and Moshe’s Tefillah convinced Hashem that He should change into the Middat Harachamim mode. Our sins, on the other hand, can convince Him (Chalilah, heaven forfend) to revert to the “Keil Kanah” approach of Middat HaDin. Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu continues and states that if we seek out Hashem (as we did after the Cheit HaEigel) and engage in wholehearted and sincere Teshuvah, He will again treat us mercifully (“Ki Keil Rachum Hashem Elokecha” [Devarim 4:31]).
Implications for Selichot and Yom Kippur
We see from our review of the process leading to our rapprochement with Hashem after Cheit HaEigel,that the Thirteen Middot of Rachamim are not a magical incantation that we recite to convince Hashem to forgive our sins. Rather, they should be seen as a plea coupled with Teshuvah imploring Hashem to deal with us in the mode of Middat HaRachamim rather than Middat HaDin. We invoke the restoration of our connection with Hashem after Cheit HaEigel as a precedent for us to reconnect with our Creator despite our failings.
One may ask, though, how we can succeed in recreating the recovery from the Cheit HaEigel if we do not have someone like Moshe Rabbeinu to advocate on our behalf. It may be for this reason that the Rama (Orach Chaim 581:1) writes that we should choose the person of the highest spiritual stature “in Torah and good deeds available” to serve as the Sheliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for Selichot and the Yamim Nora’im. Although we do not have Moshe Rabbeinu to advocate for us, the person of highest spiritual level will lead us in imploring Hashem to deal with us in the manner of the Thirteen Middot HaRachamim (see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s explanation of this Rama, cited in Harerei Kedem 1:1, that is based on Rosh Hashanah 17b).
Interestingly, in the Sephardic rite, there is a Piyyut that addresses this specific point. Sephardim recite in each of the Selichot as well as on Monday and Thursday as part of Vidui (what Ashkenazim refer to as Tachanun) the Piyyut of “Anshei Emunah Avadu.” In this Piyyut Sephardim emphasize that we no longer have great men such as Moshe Rabbeinu to advocate for us. They conclude that we have returned to Hashem humbled by our sins to implore Him at our time of distress.
This Piyyut appears to ask Hashem to accept our Teshuvah and Tefillah despite the absence of someone like Moshe Rabbeinu to negotiate with Hashem on our behalf. Indeed, this Piyyut seems to shed light on the recovery from the Cheit HaEigel. It seems to show that the Teshuvah of Bnei Yisrael was the prime motivator for Hashem to reconnect with us, rather than Moshe Rabbeinu’s skillful advocacy on behalf of his people. The implications for us are profound. We can experience a successful and meaningful Yom Kippur even without someone like Moshe Rabbeinu. Our own Teshuvah and Tefillah are the necessary components to restore our relationship with Hashem.
There is one more aspect of the recovery from the Cheit HaEigel that can shed light on our experience of the Yamim Noraim. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein notes in his work Tzir VaTzon that in Sefer Shemot we find a radical transformation in the thinking of Moshe Rabbeinu. At first, Moshe Rabbeinu is alienated from Bnei Yisrael and all of mankind (the name he gives his son reflects this attitude, see Shemot 2:22). Moshe joins Yitro, who seems to believe that the only way to connect with Hashem is to retreat from involvement in society. However, at the Sneh (burning bush) Hashem battles mightily and succeeds in convincing Moshe Rabbeinu to abandon the ideology of Yitro and to rejoin his People. Hashem wishes to show Moshe Rabbeinu that one must connect with Am Yisrael in order to fully connect with Hashem.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s transformation reaches it peak in the aftermath of the Cheit HaEigel. In a dramatic reversal of his earlier alienation from Am Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu offers himself as a Kapparah on behalf of Am Yisrael. It is precisely at this juncture that Moshe Rabbeinu reaches his spiritual peak. It is at this point that he is able to request and partially receive from Hashem the ability to somehow truly know and see Hashem.
Indeed, we find (Makkot 10a) Rebbe teaching, “…UMitalmidai Yoteir Mikulam,” “I have learned much from my Rebbeim, and even more from my friends, but the most I have learned is from my students.” It is related that the Baal Shem Tov remarked that his teaching emerged only because of his students such as the Mezericher Maggid. We are able to reach our spiritual potential only when we are together with Am Yisrael.
This might explain the seemingly puzzling ruling of the Rama (O.C. 565:5) that Selichot may not be recited without a Tzibbur. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (565:13) records that the Acharonim expressed bewilderment at this ruling. They wondered what could be wrong with reciting prayers beseeching Hashem for mercy in private and not as part of the community. We may answer in light of the above that since Selichot recreate the experience of our community recovering from the Cheit HaEigel (note Rosh Hashana 17b), the recitation of Selichot is a quintessentially communal activity. (For further discussion of this point, see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s thoughts cited in Harerei Kedem 1:3).
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein often stresses in his Shiurim that the source of a Halacha often determines the nature of the Halacha and therefore we must carefully examine the source of the Halacha. Regarding Yom Kippur, our appreciation of this special day can be greatly enriched when we carefully examine the road to the very first Yom Kippur. We learn that when we engage in Tefillah and Teshuvah as a community, we can scale great spiritual heights despite past failures.
In addition, we may now understand the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 17b) that states that Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that if Bnei Yisrael sin, “they should perform before Me this Seder (order) and I will forgive them.” It seems that the Gemara does not refer to the mere rote recitation of the Thirteen Middot of Rachamim. Rather, it refers to engaging in the “Seder,” the process, that Bnei Yisrael engaged in during their recovery from Cheit HaEigel. Our receiving the second Luchot and the introduction of the Thirteen Middot of Rachamim are simply the culmination of this Seder. Accordingly, if our recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy represents the climax of a wholehearted effort to reconcile with our Creator, we are promised that Hashem will not ignore such efforts (see Rosh Hashana 17b and Rashi s.v. Brit Keruta).