The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy
– Invoking Divine Favor
Following Hashem’s promise not to destroy the Jewish people, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe requested that Hashem make known to him the qualities of Divine mercy. In response Hashem showed Moshe a prophetic vision, in which He was wrapped in a tallis as a shaliach tzibbur while reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy (Rosh Hashanah 17b). Hashem informed Moshe that whenever the Jewish people sin in the future, thay should recite the Thirteen attributes and He will forgive them. Moshe subsequently employed the Thirteen Attributes during the second and third forty-day periods on Har Sinai, which culminated with the atonement on Yom Kippur.
R’ Yehudah in the Gemara adds that a covenant exists concerning these Thirteen Attributes, guaranteeing their effectiveness forever. The Brisker Rav explains that all the mercy that Klal Yisrael would require until the final redemption was, as it were, depowited into an account at that time, to be withdrawn when necessary. Today, writes Rabbeinu Bachaye, we are without the Bais Hamikdash, without a Kohen Gadol, 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 middos, 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 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 attrivutes in his relationships with his fellow man. (Rabbi Moshe 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 tzibbur, all of the attributes can be found.
The prophetic vision of Hashem wrapped in a tallis relates to this need to emulate His Attributes by reminding us of our obligation to perform all the mitzvos. The tallis hints to the fact that one must clothe himself in these attributes and not merely recite them.
Ibn Ezra asks why we wear a tallis gadol only during prayer. Would it not be more logical to wear a reminder of Hashem’s mitzvos when engaged in our mundane pursuits? The wearing of tallis addresses the danger that one will mistakenly think that the words of prayer are enough to effect Divine mercy. The tallis reminds us that lip service alone is not effective. One myst live and fulfill that which his prayers represent.
The second line of opinion – e.g., Tzedah Laderech and Bnei Yisaschar – views recitaton of the Thirteen Divine Attributes as effective by itself. They point to the fact that the first three attributes, according to may opinions, are proper names of Hashem 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 these 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 wries, it must be with concentration, intention and understanding. This is hinted to by the wrapping of the tallis over one’s head. The tallis signifies concentraton and the banishment of outside distractions.
The recitation of these attributes creates an eis ratzon, a period of 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 Hashem has, as it were, subjugated Himself to a system of reward and punishment dependant on man’s conduct, and another where Hashem 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 Hashem through Torah and mitzvos. At the same time, Hashem created an intricate system of reward and punishment through which His kindness is funneled.
Under normal cicumstances, 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, Hashem chooses to let us kow that He exists by showering upon us undeserved kindness beyond our understanding.
But to recieve this undeserved beneficience, we must first recognize that this mercy and kindness emanates from God and is not an indication, chas veshalom, 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.
Althoght 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 Klal Yisrael, 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 favor and grace.