Part II - The 13 Midot of Rachamim

In Part I, we attempted to explain the nature of Bnei Yisrael's sin at Chet Ha'Egel. In Part II, we explain how and why God forgives them.

As we all know, God agrees to Moshe's request that He forgive Bnei Yisrael for Chet Ha'Egel. However, what many Chumash students do not realize is that this pardon has nothing to do with God's 13 attributes of mercy! Before we hear about these 'Midot,' there exists a very important interim stage, one that is often overlooked when studying Parshat Ki-Tisa.

In fact, at this interim stage, Bnei Yisrael are required to pay a heavy price for this pardon, for God had removed His Sh'china from their camp (see 33:5-7). It is only much later on in the story that we find God must invoke His attributes of Mercy, i.e. His Midot HaRachamim.

In order to appreciate the connection between the 13 Midot and God's decision to return His Sh'china to the camp, we must first review all the events that take place at Har Sinai, beginning all the way back in Parshat Yitro. As we study these events, we must pay careful attention to the special covenant being forged between God and Bnei Yisrael, as well as the 'ups and downs' of this special relationship. To our surprise, we will find that God displays many other 'attributes,' long before His 13 attributes of mercy are first declared.

The First Luchot: God's Midot at Ma'amad Har Sinai
Before we start, we must explain why the Ten Commandments and the mitzvot that follow at Har Sinai [i.e. what we call Matan Torah], should be considered an integral part of a covenant between God and Bnei Yisrael. Let's explain:

As soon as Bnei Yisrael arrive at Har Sinai, God summons Moshe (their leader) and makes a proposal:

"...You have seen what I did to Egypt... and have brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant... then you shall become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; speak these words to Bnei Yisrael." (19:5-6)
This proposal describes a 'two sided' deal, i.e. a covenant. Should Am Yisrael accept God's special commandments, then they will become His special nation - a "goy kadosh" - a holy nation. Moshe relays this proposal to the elders, and the entire nation agrees (see 19:7-8).

Now that Bnei Yisrael accepted His proposal, God instructs Moshe to prepare the nation for Matan Torah (see 19:9-25), during which Bnei Yisrael will receive the Ten Commandments (20:1-14) and many additional mitzvot (see 20:19-23:33). Through these laws, they will become that "goy kadosh."

In this new set of laws, not only do we find numerous commandments, but also the terms by which God will uphold this covenant. The most obvious examples are found in the Ten Commandments themselves. Let's take a look:

"I am the Lord your God... You shall have no other gods besides Me... Do not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord am a jealous God Kel Kana - visiting the guilt of parents upon children... for those who reject Me - poked avon avot al banim l'son'ai, but showing kindness... for those who love me and follow my laws - oseh chesed la'alafim l'ohavai ulshom'rei mitzvotai." (see 20:2-5)
Note how the second commandment includes three divine attributes, as indicated in Board #1.

Similarly, in the third commandment, we find yet another attribute:

"Do not say in vain the name of God - ki lo y'nakeh Hashem - for God will not forgive he who says his Name in vain." (20:6)
Let's add this attribute to our list, in Board #2.

How should we consider these attributes that we have found thus far? Most of them seem to be quite harsh! Even the kindness we do find is solely for His followers, not for any others. Most definitely, these are not attributes of mercy; quite the opposite, they are Midat HaDin - attributes of exacting retribution.

Although these Midot have their 'down side,' for they threaten immediate punishment for those who transgress ("l'son'ai"), they also have their 'up side,' for they assure immediate reward for those who obey ("l'ohavai"). In other words, these Midot describe a very intense relationship, quite similar [not by chance] to God's relationship with man in Gan Eden (see Breishit 2:16-17).

Yet another example of this intense relationship, and another attribute as well, is found at the conclusion of Parshat Mishpatim. There, after completing four chapters of various commandments, God makes the following promise:

"Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and help bring you into the Promised Land. Be careful and obey him, do not defy him - for he shall not pardon your sins - 'ki lo yisah l'fish'achem," since My Name is with him... [On the other hand...] should you obey Him and do all that I say - I will help you defeat your enemies... (see Shmot 23:20-24)
Once again, we find that God will exact punishment should Bnei Yisrael not follow His mitzvot and reward (i.e. assistance in conquering the Land) should they obey Him. (See Board #3.)

After the incident of Chet Ha'Egel, the story that continues the narrative of Parshat Mishpatim [note how 24:12-16 flows directly to 32:1 in Parshat Ki-Tisa], we find that God intends to act precisely according to these attributes of Midat HaDin:

"And God told Moshe, go down from the mountain for your people have sinned... they made a golden image... and now allow Me, and I will kindle my anger against them that I may destroy them - v'yichar api bahem..." (see 32:7-10)
In fact, here we find yet another divine attribute - charon af Hashem - God's instant anger. (See Board #4 for our complete list.)

Chet Ha'Egel: The Covenant is Broken
According to the terms of the covenant at Matan Torah, now symbolized by the first luchot that Moshe received when he ascended Har Sinai for the first forty days (see 24:12), Bnei Yisrael should have been punished immediately for the sin of Chet Ha'Egel (32:8). Hence, when they sin, God is faced with only two alternatives:

The first alternative is thwarted by Moshe Rabbeinu's petition that God not evoke His anger (32:11-13), and his refusal to become that nation (see 32:32!). However, there is a price that Am Yisrael must pay. In order to escape punishment, the covenant made at Har Sinai must be annulled! [Recall that in that covenant we found no mention of attributes of mercy that would possibly allow Bnei Yisrael a 'second chance.'] Therefore, in order to allow Bnei Yisrael to survive, the second alternative must be chosen, i.e. Brit Sinai - the covenant of Har Sinai - must be annulled! This most probably explains Moshe's decision to break the luchot - the symbol of that covenant. When he descends from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the golden calf, he realizes that the only way to save Am Yisrael is to break the luchot, and hence the terms of that covenant (see 32:15-20)! [This annulment of Brit Sinai is also reflected in God's commandment that Bnei Yisrael must remove 'jewelry' that they received on Har Sinai, the symbol of their high level (see 33:5-6).]

A very strange predicament now arises. Even though Bnei Yisrael will not be destroyed, they are now left in the desert without Brit Sinai. What should they do now? After all, without Matan Torah, there is little purpose for their existence. Yet with the strict conditions of Brit Sinai, they cannot survive its consequences.

So - enter God's attributes of mercy? Not so fast! There is an important stage in the story that we must not overlook.

God's initial response to this predicament is very interesting. Even though He is no longer committed to Brit Sinai [it has been broken], He remains committed to an earlier covenant - Brit Avot - the covenant in which God had promised Eretz Canaan to the offspring of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov! In fact, Moshe Rabbeinu had recalled this brit in his petition that God not punish Bnei Yisrael:

"Remember Your servants, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, your servants to whom you swore... that their offspring will inherit the Land". (Shmot 32:13)
This situation leads to a logical, yet unthinkable, conclusion. God agrees to fulfill Brit Avot - he will allow Moshe to lead Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan, but without Brit Matan Torah!
"And God said to Moshe - Set out from here, you and the people which you have brought out of Egypt to the Land which I swore to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov ('brit Avot')... but I will not go in your midst for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the journey." (33:1-3)
Note, that according to these instructions, Bnei Yisrael will enter the land without the Sh'china - i.e. without God in their midst - without Brit Sinai. God will keep his promise to give Bnei Yisrael the land, but His aspiration that they become a "goy kadosh" has been shattered! As unthinkable as this sounds, considering that God had reached the conclusion that Bnei Yisrael are an "am k'shei oref" - a stiff necked people (see 32:9, 33:5), there seems to be no other solution.

Had Moshe Rabbeinu not intervened at this point, this 'revised plan' would have been the outcome. However, Moshe Rabbeinu is unwilling to accept it. Instead, he counters by threatening a 'sit down strike.' He refuses to lead Am Yisrael on their journey to Eretz Canaan unless God agrees to return His presence:

".... [and Moshe said to God] 'Unless Your Presence will go with us ("iym ayn pa'necha holchim"), do not make us leave this place. For how should it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us..." (33:12-16)
Moshe's refusal leaves God ["k'vayachol"] in a most difficult predicament. Should He allow His Sh'china to return according to the terms of Brit Sinai, the people would not survive His anger. However, He cannot leave them in the desert, for Brit Avot must be fulfilled! Yet, Moshe will not lead them out of the desert unless He returns Brit Sinai. Something has to budge! But what will it be?

It is here, in the resolution of this dilemma, where God's 13 Midot HaRachamim enter the picture.

A New Covenant
According to the terms of the original Brit Sinai, the consequence of the Sh'china's residing with the nation was an intense level of Midat HaDin - immediate punishment for sin (see 33:5 - "rega"). This is quite understandable, for to be worthy of God's presence, man must behave perfectly. However, man is still human. Although he may strive to perfection, he will often err or at times even sin. How then can man ever come close to God? How can God allow for His Sh'china to dwell among us? The original terms of Brit Sinai, though ideal, are not practical. To allow man to come close to God a new rule book is necessary. Now - enter Midot HaRachamim.

Let's see now how God introduces this concept of 'divine mercy' in His response to Moshe's plea:

"And God said to Moshe, 'I will also do this thing that you request' [to return His Sh'china]... then God answered: 'I will pass all my goodness before you, and I will proclaim My name before you, and I will pardon he whom I will pardon and I will have mercy on he to whom I give mercy..." (see 33:17-19)
This promise to Moshe that God will indeed remain with His nation must now take the form of an official covenant. Just as the terms of the original covenant required an official proclamation and ceremony at Har Sinai, so do the terms of this new covenant. Thus, God commands Moshe to ascend Har Sinai one more time, in a manner quite parallel to his first ascent to Har Sinai [but with significant minor differences], to receive the second luchot (see 34:1-5 and its parallel in Shmot 19:20-24).

Even though the laws remain the same, their terms must now be amended with God's attributes of mercy. Therefore, in this "hitgalut," God must proclaim what has been 'amended' to the original brit:

"And God came down in a cloud... and passed before him and proclaimed: 'Hashem, Hashem kel rachum v'chanun, erech apaiim v'rav chesed v'emet..." (i.e. the 13 midot; see Shmot 34:5-8)
After confirming this covenant ("hiney anochi koret brit..." - see 34:10), God then inscribes the Ten Commandments on the new luchot (see 34:29-30), the physical symbol of this new covenant - Brit Shlosh Esray - the covenant of the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy.

Now, upon hearing this official proclamation of these attributes, Moshe immediately makes his request that God return His Sh'china to the people even though they are an "am k'shei oref":

"And Moshe hastened to bow down and said: 'If I have indeed gained favor in Your eyes, let Hashem go in our midst, even though they are stiff necked people, and you shall pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own." (34:8-9)
Now that there is a 'new set of rules' that allow God's Sh'china to remain even though Bnei Yisrael may sin, Moshe begs that God indeed return to be with His nation (as he requested in 33:12-16).

With this background, we can now better appreciate the Torah's choice of the words used to express these thirteen Midot.

Board #5, followed by a more detailed explanation, highlights the contrasting parallel between God's attributes that we had found in our study of the original covenant, and His attributes according to the new covenant.

Note how each attribute from the original covenant switches from Midat HaDin to Midat HaRachamim! Let's explain (going in the order of the new Midot):

A. Hashem Kel Rachum V'chanun
     instead of (1) Hashem Kel Kana

B. Erech Apayim
     instead of (6) Charon Af C. Rav Chesed Ve'emet
     instead of (3) Oseh Chesed...L'ohavai D. Notzer Chesed La'alafim
     instead of (3) Oseh Chesed... L'ohavai E. Nosay Avon Vafesha
     instead of (5) Lo Yisah L'fish'achem F. V'nakeh, Lo Y'nakeh
     instead of (4) Lo Y'nakeh G. Poked Avon Avot al Banim
     instead of (2) Poked Avon... L'son'ai These striking parallels demonstrate that each of the 13 Midot lies in direct contrast to the Midot of the original covenant at Har Sinai. These Divine attributes of mercy allow the Sh'china to dwell within Yisrael even though they may not be worthy. Midat HaRachamim allows man to approach God and develop a closer relationship without the necessity of immediate punishment for any transgression.

This explanation adds extra meaning to our comprehension and appreciation of our recitation of the Selichot. Reciting the 13 Midot comprises more than just a mystical formula. It is a constant reminder of the conditions of the covenant of the second luchot. God's attributes of mercy, as we have shown, do not guarantee automatic forgiveness; rather, they enable the possibility of forgiveness. As the pasuk stated, God will forgive - "et asher a'chon... v'et asher arachem" (33:19). To be worthy of that mercy, the individual must prove to God his sincerity, while accepting upon himself not to repeat his bad ways.

Thus, our recitation of the "13 midot" serve as a double reminder:

This recognition should inspire one who understands the terms of this covenant to act in manner by which God will find him worthy of Divine mercy. After we have been judged on Rosh HaShana, we ask on Yom Kippur, the very same day on which Bnei Yisrael first received the second luchot, that God grant us rachamim. We pray that our recitation of the 13 Midot during ne'illa should not only wipe out sins of the year that has passed, but also set us in the proper path of "teshuva" for the new year that is now beginning. Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
A. Connect Part I of the above shiur to a similar concept of a "mal'ach" leading Bnei Yisrael, represented by a physical symbol, found in Bamidbar 10:33: "v'Aron brit Hashem no'sey'ah lifneihem derech shloshet yamim latur lahem menucha." See also Bamidbar 10:35-36 and Yehoshua 6:6-11.

B. It is not clear why Aharon does not insist that the people be patient and wait for Moshe. Note that according to 24:14, the people are instructed to turn to Aharon and Chur, should a problem arise. Interestingly enough, Chur is never mentioned again.

Relate this to the Midrash that explains Aharon's behavior because Chur had told them to wait and was killed.

C. Note the use of the word "shi'chet" in 32:7. In Devarim 4:16 we find a similar use of this shoresh in relation to making a physical representation of God with good intentions!

Read Devarim 4:9-24 carefully and note its connection to the events at Chet Ha'egel. Use this parallel to explain 4:21-23.

D. See the Rambam's first halacha in Hilchot Avodah Zara. Relate his explanation of the origin of avoda zara to the above shiur.

Back TSC Home