Printable version available here: Chodesh Elul 5774
The prayers we utter over the ‘Days of Awe’ (Yamim Nora’im) draw on certain biblical verses, most notably the ‘Thirteen Attributes of God’ in Exodus 34:6-7. These verses are repeated in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). They are first uttered by God when Moses has gained forgiveness for the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses then quotes them back to God after the sin of the spies who scouted the land in Numbers 14. It is in Numbers 14:20 that we hear the words also found in our liturgy, “The Eternal One said: I have pardoned according to your word.” – ויאמר יהוה סלחתי כדברך. Before we turn to the Babylonian Talmud below, let us first read a little more closely the verses around the thirteen attributes (Exodus 34:5-7):
וירד יהוה בענן ויתיצב עמו שם ויקרא בשם יהוה:
|The Eternal One descended in a cloud and stood with him there and he called in the name of the Eternal One.|
ויעבר יהוה על פניו ויקרא יהוה יהוה אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת:
|And the Eternal One passed before him and proclaimed: “Adonai, Adonai, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and great in love and truth.|
נצר חסד לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה לא ינקה פקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים:
|Keeping mercy to the thousandth generation and forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. Will by no means clear the guilty and visiting the sins of the fathers on the children and the children of the children to the third and fourth generation.”|
I was privileged to study these verses with Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet in the context of studying their occurrence in the book of Jonah. For a brief summary of his brilliance see his D’var Torah for the Leo Baeck College for Yom Kippur 2011 but also in his books and publications. He notes, as have others, that the ‘Thirteen Attributes’ are ‘misquoted’ in the liturgy – the liturgical author switches the sense of ‘will by no means clear the guilty’ to ‘will clear the guilty’.
This revelation is really the answer to Moses’ desire to know God (from the previous chapter Exodus 33). It is the promise, by God, of a moment of deep intimacy that will occur in which God protects Moses in the cleft of the rock. God proclaims His name and passes His goodness before Moses. If we read the opening words of these verses above remembering this, what we see is that God stands with Moses and calls, or perhaps proclaims, God’s own name. It’s a curious way of describing the revelation and it is that which the Babylonian Talmud (and other sources) is sensitive to – seeing this in pedagogical terms.
B. Rosh Hashanah 17b
ויעבר ה’ על פניו ויקרא, אמר רבי יוחנן: אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו, מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור, והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה. אמר לו: כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם. ה’ ה’ – אני הוא קודם שיחטא האדם, ואני הוא לאחר שיחטא האדם ויעשה תשובה. אל רחום וחנון, אמר רב יהודה: ברית כרותה לשלש עשרה מדות שאינן חוזרות ריקם, שנאמר +שמות לד+ הנה אנכי כרת ברית.
The Eternal One passed before him and proclaimed (Exodus 34:6): Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘If it were not written in scripture it would be impossible to say. It teaches that the Holy One, ever to be praised, enrobed himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader), and showed to Moses the order of prayer. God said to him: Any time that Israel sins – they should do before me like this, and I will pardon them.
|ויעבר ה’ על פניו ויקרא||This is when God proclaims the thirteen attributes before Moses. What does it mean to suggest that God calls in God’s own name?||The Eternal One passed before him and proclaimed|
|אמר רבי יוחנן: אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו||This phrase used here has been the subject of some discussion – but specifically it indicates that something a little surprising or out of the ordinary will be suggested (see below for quote from Halbertal on this) under a sort of ‘pretence’ of an obvious interpretation of the Biblical text.||Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘If it were not written in scripture it would be impossible to say.|
|מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור, והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה.||This is the surprise that Rabbi Yochanan had in store. We do not read the experience of God standing with Moses as God’s revelation, but rather God teaching Moses how to pray. And specifically the prayers necessary for forgiveness.||It teaches that the Holy One, ever to be praised, enrobed himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader), and showed to Moses the order of prayer.|
|אמר לו: כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם.||What is imagined lies between the moment that God passes before Moses and proclaims ‘Adonai, Adonai’ is this short lesson. If you do all ‘this’ I will pardon them.||God said to him: Any time that Israel sins – they should do before me like this, and I will pardon them.|
This is the quote from Halbertal’s essay on the phrase ‘were it not written in scripture it would be impossible to say’.
The peak of religious life is found in a place where the humanizing metaphor arrives at the edge of paradox, as a result of intimacy which breaks the structure of the authority that is supposedly a given in the relationship between man and God. In this new religious mould, it is possible to say that which is impossible to say, and via the circular character of the ‘If the text had not been written, it could not be said’ formula, this interesting perspective is converted into the meaning of the text itself.
Some thoughts and questions
It seems there are lots of things going on here – not least the idea that we would be ‘spoon fed’ the correct words for forgiveness; is this like a parent who provides children with the formula for saying sorry? What does it mean for God to do the same to Moses?
Actually more than the theology perhaps there is a teaching here for how to begin to formulate the words of forgiveness. When thinking about the things we may have done in the past year, what can we say, where do we start? These words of the machzor (prayer book for the Days of Awe) could seem formulaic but actually they can be read differently – as a moment of intimate guidance. It’s not that children are taught a simple formula to make things right, but that they are given the words to begin the conversation that seeks forgiveness…As Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2 states:
רבי יסא אמר, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל בני פתחו לי פתח אחד של תשובה כחודה של מחט ואני פותח לכם פתחים שיהיו עגלות וקרניות נכנסות בו.
Rabbi Yassa said: The Holy One ever to be praised said to Israel, ‘My children, open for me one opening for repentance as wide as the eye of a needle and I will open for you openings wide enough for carriages and waggons to pass through’.
- How do you read the passage in Exodus between God and Moses – and what are the 13 attributes?
- Does Rabbi Yochanan’s intepretation change your reading of the passage in Exodus?
- Many of us struggle with what it means for God to answer us or be the One who grants forgiveness. How might the text in the Babylonian Talmud impact on our understanding of what we seek during the period of repentance?
- To really prepare for the Yamim Nora’im it is good to reacquaint ourselves with the liturgy so the prayer book is not a stranger to us. From Rabbi Yochanan’s interpretation, perhaps the prayers say something that we did not, at first, expect?
Moshe Halbertal, (2009) ‘If the text had not been written, it could not be said’ in Scriptural Exegesis – the Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination; Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane (pp. 146–161). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.157-8