Our Sages’ idea of “teshuva,” repentance, is both revolutionary and formidable in its extent and its power. Let’s summarize the whole project’s purpose by the slogan: “The greater the responsibility, the greater the hope.” On the burden of the responsibility and the extension of hope stands the ethos of the laws of teshuva. Establishing the balance between claiming responsibility, together with its consequences, and opening options for amendment and change, is a superb educational and religious insight.
Many educational, ideological, and theological doctrines break this balance by stressing one pole against the other. Stressing the pole of responsibility by a strict punishment system (עבודה מיראה – a terrorizing education, “observance out of fear”) attains a general restraint and a temporary obedience, but it ends in a general collapse. It dumps either the pupil or the believer after the first misstep. Stressing the pole of hope produces a positive motion, but it leads toward a disdain of moral obligations and the inflexible relationship between deeds and their consequences.
Whoever looks at me from behind
It was on Yom Kippur, tradition says, that Moses achieved the final forgiveness for the transgression of the Golden Calf, and came down with the second tablets. Moses experienced a special revelation on Mount Sinai by requesting knowing God’s ways and looking at His Presence. Moses has two requests: to “know God’s ways” and to “see God.” God partially fulfilled Moses’ wishes: He does not reveal clearly His ways, declaring instead, “I will favor whom I will favor and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” He declines to show His Presence “for no human shall see Me and live,” allowing him to see His back instead.
A private epiphany for Moses, a breathtaking revelation described in an extraordinary literary art, expressing discovery and mystery at the same time. Discovery, because God fulfills Moses’ request to see. Mystery, because Moses does not see His Presence. Discovery, because even without seeing God, Moses sees Him, given that he can open his eyes. Mystery, because God covers Moses’ eyes. Discovery, because Moses sees God’s hand. Mystery, because this hand blocks and darkens his vision. Discovery, because when God passes, Moses sees His back. Mystery, because seeing the back means looking without recognizing. “Whoever looks at me from behind doesn’t know who am I,” goes an Israeli children’s song. We must add Moses behavior at the revelation: the man who exposed God decides to add to the mystery. Moses, who wanted to see, bowed his head to the ground when God passes.
Thirteen attributes of mercy
The apex of the revelation and its main significance through the generations are the 13 attributes. Nietzsche said that an outstanding sovereign is known either by his extreme cruelty or his supreme mercy. The literal meaning of the verses describes God as such an outstanding sovereign, capable of showing mercy and favor to those who love Him, granting ample compassion toward those who fulfill His commandments. He is also capable of recalling the iniquity of the fathers upon the second, third, and fourth generations of those who detest Him. However, God’s 13 attributes are called “attributes of mercy” in Jewish tradition. Recalling the transgressions is not considered to be eternal rage, but “installments” when punishment is deserved.
During prayers in the Days of Awe we use God’s attributes of mercy in an almost arbitrary way when we cut the phrase: “and absolve He will certainly not,” citing the verse rather up to the words “and absolve.” We follow a bold exegesis of our Sages: “He absolves those who repent, while He certainly does not so with those who do not repent.” (Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a) God does not need to demonstrate sovereignty; He shows the way to the sinners. Whoever does teshuva, repents, is reassured that God will forgive, while the rebels will be certainly punished. The greater the responsibility, the greater the hope.
Who proclaimed the 13 attributes?
One compelling question is: Who is the one who exposes the 13 attributes? One possibility is that Moses says them when God passes upon him. The second choice is that God Himself proclaims His attributes while passing upon Moses.
Following the first option, Moses sees the most portentous and revelatory epiphany. He is about to see something of God Himself, to see the Creator of Heavens and Earth, the Ruler of the Universe, its Judge, the King in all His glory. Moses transmits the most authentic description of the mysterious God that may be revealed to humans. This description is not that of the great, mighty, and awesome God, but that of the attributes of mercy.
Rather than a measurable range, God has extraordinary behavioral characteristics. The sense of this revelation is clear: grasping God’s physical description is not what is important, but knowing His attributes. God’s power and might are contained in mercy and compassion. This revelation enables teshuva, repentance. It depicts a listening, merciful and indulgent God, rather than the angry, jealous, and arbitrary One. These attributes of God help prayer and open a gate to forgiveness.
The option in which it is God Himself who proclaims His attributes makes the message conveyed by the revelation even sharper. If God says (as a poem) His attributes to Moses, this then is the image He wants to entrust to the greatest of His prophets and to His people. The event happens as an epilogue to God’s dramatic forgiveness of Israel after the transgression of the Golden Calf. From a narrative point of view, God’s attributes of mercy replace the destructive roaring of God deciding to annihilate the people.
If the original design were to be fulfilled, God should have called His attributes: “the Lord, the Lord, a God who is jealous, vindictive, etc.” By changing His mind and forgiving, God proves that He puts compassion over anger. God’s declaration of the 13 attributes is a self-victory song of God overcoming Himself. This God calls Moses’ descendants to act again for the sake of His forgiveness, because there is hope.
Were it not a written verse, it would be impossible to declare it
There’s a very special explanation in the Talmud about this event:
God passed upon him, saying
Rabbi Yohanan taught: were it not a written verse, it would be impossible to declare it. It teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, dressed as a synagogue cantor, showed Moses the order of the prayers.
He said to him: when the People of Israel transgress, they should say to Me these words and I will forgive them.
“The Lord, the Lord,” it implies that I exist before the Human Being transgresses and I am there after he transgresses and repents.
“A merciful and compassionate God.” Rav Yehudah explained: It is My covenant that the 13 attributes will not be left unanswered, as it is said: “Here I am establishing a covenant.” (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 17b)
Rabbi Yohanan depicts the event as an almost grotesque description of the relationship between Moses and God. The event loses its dramatic ominous aspect to become a funny role-playing. God plays in front of Moses, and they interchange roles. God presents a liturgical scenario where He prays, while Moses watches Him from behind as a passive congregant behind the synagogue cantor. In this “play,” God loses His divine stature and stands in front of Moses as human. This abdication of stature is justified, because it grants Moses and the People of Israel a marvelous formula: declare this and forgiveness is granted.
Rabbi Yohanan holds both exegetical options for these verses. God is the one who declares His attributes in this historical revelation, yet this act is a behavioral paradigm for the People of Israel. This exegesis was meant to explain the event and to confer it sense. Rabbi Yohanan deals with the problem of divine ruling of the World. Nobody has ever seen God’s presence. Through His actions in the Universe we can grasp different divine descriptions. No free depiction of God’s acts in the Universe would have been translated into the attributes Moses described.
The Divinity acting in the Bible, as well as in the universe does not simply fit the description: “A God who is merciful, compassionate, long-suffering, abundant in goodness, etc.” Rabbi Yohanan teaches that the depiction of God’s Revelation to Moses is neither an ontological depiction, nor an epistemological one. It is the description of an agreement (a “covenant,” as in the Bible and the Talmud).
It is as if God were saying to Moses: “Nobody knows My face, but the image I want to bestow upon you is one of a merciful and compassionate God. To this image, deriving from My forgiving the sin of the golden calf, I commit Myself from now on. My commitment depends on you and Israel recalling it. Put a synagogue cantor declaring My attributes and I assure you that your prayers will not be unanswered.”
Such a depiction of the revelation that cannot be described had the verse not been written, redesigns the sense of the Revelation to Moses and the sense of the prayer within the present conditions of God’s revelation in His universe.