David Walk

Who Knows 13?

This week’s Torah reading is an emotional roller coaster ride. We initially return to Moshe’s ascent on Mt. Sinai only to then encounter the extremely depressing and disheartening story of the Golden Calf. From ecstatic high to dismal low. The Midrash compares this experience to the banishment from Eden (receiving the Torah removed the adverse effects of the Primordial Sin, only for them to return with our ancestors’ sin). However, unlike Adam and Eve, the Jewish people are given an antidote for the consequences of sin.

In one of the Torah’s most dramatic scenes, Moshe is granted a fleeting glimpse of God’s glorious greatness: Then the Eternal came down in a cloud and stayed there with him, and He passed before Moshe and declared: The Eternal, the Eternal, God of compassion and grace, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Shmot 34:5-7).

It is that scene which I would like to focus on this week. What is happening when God ‘passes’ by Moshe? And, more importantly, what is the message of this dramatic scene for us?

As for what is happening, my answer is unequivocal: Have no clue! There are attempts to describe the action, but, I think, to no avail. The most famous is that Moshe saw God’s back, and actually discerned that God was wearing TEFILLIN. The Talmud then conjectures about what is written in God’s TEFILLIN. Ours say, ‘SHMA YISRAEL…’; God’s say, ‘Who is like unto you amongst the nations of the world? (Berachot 6a). I believe that Moshe was being instructed that we can only discern God’s presence after an event (God’s back) and not before (presumably, God’s front). 

On the other hand, we’re pretty sure about the message: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order, and I will forgive them (Rosh Hashanah 17b). This declaration by God contains the 13 Attributes (MIDOT) of compassion, which apparently amount to a guarantee of forgiveness when invoked by our nation.

A fascinating side issue is that we don’t know how to parse the exact list of Divine MIDOT. There are many attempts to identify the big 13. On that page of the Talmud, there are three attempts. Rav Shmuel David Luzzatto declares that there are 13 possible configurations of the 13 MIDOT.

However, the nature of the exact list is ultimately unimportant. The true significance is that we are granted a formula to use when we have fallen into sin. We can access their power. But why 13?

Thirteen, in Jewish tradition, represents the concept of TIKUN or repair of defects in ourselves or our world. We see this phenomenon in many cases where a basic list of 12 items has a thirteenth component added to undo some fault or flaw. The 12 Tribes can be configured as 13, the twelve months become 13, and our central prayer the Shemoneh Esrei (18 Blessings) originally had 12 requests in its central section, but a thirteenth was added around the year 100 CE to combat a growing heretic problem which we call Christianity.

Perhaps, the clearest example of 13 being a TIKUN for 12 is the story of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and his son Eleazar. They spent 12 years in a cave hiding from the Roman persecutions. When they emerged, they were disgusted with the outside world which spent so much time and effort on physical needs. So, God bid them to return to the cave for a thirteenth year and they then emerged with the ability to abide by the worldliness of their neighbors. 

So, in some manner, 13 is the Tikun for a 12 step program which has gone awry. Twelve is the basic number of natural phenomena and 13 is the TIKUN when things aren’t going according to God’s plan.

But how does this seemingly magic process work? Rav Ezra Bick suggests that it is activated by our declaration of these Divine Attributes through which God is revealed in the world, and becomes the world’s sovereign:

There has to be some effect to a sincere calling of the attributes, because otherwise God will have no presence in the world at all. There is no base for God within the world other than the hearts of men. If God is not revealed within the prayers of Israel, how shall He be revealed?…I believe that the secret of Selichot – is found in a concept that lies at the heart of our relationship with the Almighty.  This pronouncement is not simply descriptive; it is constitutive.  The nation’s declaration of loyalty creates the king’s kingship.

The Azanayim L’Torah offers an alternative view. He believes that the 13 MIDOT work only when we assume the attitude of Moshe Rabbeinu:

One must do as Moshe did when he broke the Tablets! One must break the Tablets inscribed in one’s heart as they had been before the sin. One must come before God with a newly inscribed heart with all intention of fulfilling the words of God from this point on, forever. If one really performs such an order of behavior, God will forgive and answer all prayers.

As intriguing and inspiring as both of these explanations are, I feel most affected by the opinion of Rav Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz the Shnei Luchot Habrit, who explains:

We all know how many times we recite the 13 attributes and nothing seems to happen and our sins do not seem to disappear. This is because we did not heed the wording of the promise. The sages spoke about God having demanded that we practice, עוסקים, the attributes of God, not merely recite them during a confessional, ‘and you will walk in His ways’. Fulfilling this part of the Torah’s blueprint for our relationship with God will qualify us to be the מרכבה, the carrier of God’s Presence on earth. Man is, after all, the reflection of God on earth. 

The greatest magic isn’t magic at all; it is hard work! The 13 MIDOT work because we adopt them as our lifestyle choice. We must remember this principle every time that we recite the magic 13 MIDOT. We must implement these character traits into our lives. When we are kind, compassionate and forgiving of others, then God will forgive us. It sounds so simple that it is an amazing reality that it hasn’t caught on. Let’s try it out; I believe that we’ll be amazed.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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