And the Lord passed by before [Moses], and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a talit like a shaliach tzibur and showed Moses the order of the prayer. He told ]Moses]: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them perform before Me this order, and I will forgive them.” ( Rosh HaShanah 17b)
Prayer is one of the most basic of human instincts. From time immemorial, people prayed to God. I even know some atheists who have found themselves inexplicably praying. Yet, here, Rabbi Yohanan seems to be saying that had God not taught Moshe this particular prayer service, we would not be able to say it. Despite the prayers found in our siddurim from the members of the Great Assembly and the many prayers offered throughout Tanakh, the recitation of the 13 principles, “HaShem HaShem Kel Rachum Ve’Chanun…,” is such a unique prayer that we would not have known what to say had God Himself not taught the service.
What is so special about these words?
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z” l interprets this Talmudic story based on the continuation of the text. The thirteen divine attributes begin, “HaShem, HaShem.” What does the double language mean? The Gemara explains, “I am HaShem before the person sins, and I am HaShem after the sinner does Teshuva.” We relate to God on two levels. One is the natural connection we have to the Divine. This is the meaning of “I am HaShem before the sin.” The Talmud calls Human prayer, asking for “Life, Children, and Sustenance.” (Moed Katan 28a) We pray for our health, to have offspring, and for our livelihood. We know how to pray to fulfill our needs in this world.
However, after a person sins, it is as if they turned their back on God. Cutting oneself off from the world’s life force comes at a steep price. In a sense, we have torn the world asunder and do not have a way to live in this world. How do we repair the rupture created by sin? It’s as if we have destroyed our world by rejecting our relationship with God, even in a small way. We don’t know how to pray to recreate the world to its state before sin and spiritual destruction. God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4) We know how to pray for things of this world. After the sin, we have destroyed our religious world. We don’t know how to pray to recreate the world before our fall.
And so God taught us that we can pray. There is always a way back, even when we think we ruptured the fabric of our world. The entire selichot liturgy is a new type of prayer. We begin with Ashrei, half kaddish, the 13 attributes, tachanun, and end with the special kaddish “titkabel,” only recited after an Amidah. The selichot payers follow the structure of a regular service like mincha. In place of the centerpiece of the Amidah in mincha, we find the 13 attributes which, like the repetition of the Amidah, can only be recited with a minyan. It is a new prayer service of recreation. Through the selichot and the recitation of the thirteen divine attributes, we turn to God, asking the Divine to rebuild our world after the sin and the brokenness.
If one learns nothing more from our tradition, one should know that human beings are creatures of this world and, thus, imperfect. There is only one perfect being — God. All humans are part of the flawed creation. Sometimes, we see our imperfections as great veils or walls that prevent us from reaching God. Rabbi Yohanan teaches us that no matter how far we have strayed or how imperfect we are, we can always turn to God, who will pick us up and help us rebuild our lives.
As Yom Kippur approaches and we spend time analyzing ourselves, we must remember that we are children of God, who is always there to help us grow and repair our lives and the world.
A sense of crisis and rupture permeates our greater Jewish community. The glue that holds the Jewish people together is quickly dissolving. Perhaps wholeness and unity can be found if we are willing to forgive the imperfections in ourselves and others and trust that God will as well. The 13 attributes primarily describe God’s actions of chessed and forgiveness. We are called to “do them” to not only pray selichot but to be willing to give selicha to others. The closer we approach godliness, the closer God will come to us.
May we all find healing and unification in the Divine embrace, and may Am Yisrael merit coming together in forgiveness and love.