Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ki Tissa: God’s 13 Attributes in Prayer and Action

On Mount Sinai, the Eternal presented Godself not only as “the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”(Exodus 20:2) but also as “an impassioned (or “jealous”) God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (vv. 5-6). Moreover, God sets an unambiguous condition forbidding the making of any visual image of Divinity.
The order is unequivocal, but only forty days later, the whole deal falls apart. Their anxiety when faced with Moses’s delay in returning to the camp causes the people to demand a physical representation instead of an abstract deity. Aaron succumbs to public pressure, and before long the people dance around a golden calf. Given the terms of the covenant set at Sinai, God’s immense wrath is unsurprising. God’s immediate response is a desire to destroy the people, and start over with Moses. Only the courageous mediation of Moses, who demonstrates double loyalty – to God and to the people – saves us and the punishment stops short of complete annihilation (See Exodus 32 for details).
At this point, God realizes (as God also did after the flood) that even divinely-created humans are unable to function as God desires, and therefore it is necessary to moderate the terms of the covenant:
The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed: “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God who compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; but does not remit all punishment, rather visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Considering the people’s proven weakness, the emphasis here is not on the Eternal’s impassioned jealousy but rather on God’s graciousness.
At Sinai, “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children” preceded “showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Now “extending kindness to the thousandth generation” and “forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” precede “does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children...” Moreover, God’s graciousness is no longer limited to those who keep the commandments. It is now extended to all.
The expansion of God’s grace serves as the backdrop for far-reaching statements by Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Yehuda:
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse teaches that the Holy Blessed One, wrapped Godself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Every time the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order, and I will forgive them. The Eternal, the Eternal [is repeated because] I am God before and after a person sins and does repents, because God is always merciful and gracious.
Rabbi Yehuda said: A covenant made with the thirteen attributes will not return empty. (emphasis SMZ; Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b).
On the basis of these statements, Exodus 34:6-7a became the foundation upon which the Seliḥot prayers for forgiveness are built, and we return to them repeatedly. The words in bold seemingly promise that reciting these 13 Attributes together, in praying community, will always lead to the desired result, our sins will be forgiven and everything will be fine. Life experience teaches otherwise. One who knew this well, Rabbi Avraham Saba, who was exiled by the Spanish Inquisition, explains the gap between promise and reality:
We often see many times that we wrap ourselves in a tallit and are  not answered. Rather, the divine will is that whenever Israel acts according to this list of God’s deeds, are compassionate and kind to the poor, are patient and loving with one another, and forego their right to punish, etc., then they are promised that the attributes will not return empty-handed.  (emphasis SMZ, Tzror Hamor on Exodus 34:5, h/t Rabbi Shai Held).
Reciting the 13 Attributes is not meant only to awaken God’s mercy in heaven but also to internalize them so we can realize them on earth. The golden calf does not represents the Eternal in the world; rather we, human beings created in God’s image do so when we walk in God’s ways by being merciful and doing acts of loving kindness for one another.

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