Posted on February 18, 2022 by Ed Tolmnan, Guest Darshan
In the opening portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Shemot, we read that as Moses looks away from the burning bush which is unconsumed by the flames, God calls out to him, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answers “Hineini.” Here I am. God bids Moses to go to Pharaoh to set the people of Israel free from their bondage in Egypt. Moses asks with reluctance. “Who am I to do as you ask?” God replies that God will be at Moses’ side. Further, Moses asks. “If I go to the people and say God sent me and they ask, “What is God’s name? What should I say?” And God replies, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” I am what I am. Or I will be what I will be. Or, as I interpret the words, I will be what you will make me to be. And just as these words can be interpreted differently, so too arises the question of who is actually enquiring of God‘s identity. Is it really “they,” the people. Or is it, as some commentators have said, Moses himself who is seeking to know God, to find God. Perhaps, Moses is trying find the presence and strength of God within himself, given his reluctance to be God’s emissary of freedom.
Perhaps more than any other, this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tissa, is rich in topics, themes, ideas and lessons to be interpreted, discussed and learned. It begins with instructions for a census, in which people will be counted by the one-half shekel each is taxed, no more for the rich, no less for the poor. Talmud teaches that we must not count people directly to protect against some supernatural danger (for example, a minyan is counted with 10 words from Torah). The portion goes on to describe the making of a basin for water by which Aaron and his sons are to cleanse themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting and tells of the creating an anointing oil by which to consecrate the sanctuary and all within. We are told of the selection of highly and divinely skilled workers who will actually build the sanctuary. Then we are given instruction to keep the Sabbath. It is more than a simple day of rest, but it is a covenant between us, the people and the Eternal. And in Ex 31:16-17, we come across the familiar words of the V’Shamru. The portion then turns back to Moses at Sinai. Finally, we come to the mitzvot of observing Passover, Shavuot and the Sabbath; to the mitzvah of redeeming the first born and to the prohibitions against idolatry and boiling the kid in its mother’s milk.
It is back at Sinai, where we encounter the incident of the Golden Calf and the wrath of God. Moses, in his own anger, breaks the sacred tablets containing the word of God. Though there is the punishment of death for the guilty and there is a plague set upon all the people, they are saved by the intercession of Moses. God commands Moses to lead the people forward, but God, being so angered at the people, will not be present among them, but will send an angel to guide them forward. It is here that Moses pleads with God to be allowed to get to know the Almighty, to see the Almighty. God will not show his face, but only his back. It is here we come across in Ex 34:6-7 the words God calls to Moses as Moses again ascends the mountain to receive the second set of tablets, Adonai, Adonai El rachoom v’chanoon, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed laalafim, noser avon v’feshah v’hatah v’nekah. Does Moses get from these words what he is seeking?
After all his encounters with God, at the burning bush, as he implores the Pharoah to let Israel go free, at the miracle of the Sea of Reeds, as he encounters the miracles of God in the desert responding to the needs of complaining people and when he receives God’s Word on the first set of holy tablets, Moses still seeks to find God, to know God. And perhaps, as we began, to find the presence and strength of God within himself. He will not see a physical manifestation of the Almighty, but will experience the presence of God. Adonai Adonai El rachoom v’chanoon, erech apayim…….
These are the words we intone three times, perhaps in a traditional somewhat moan-ful mode, in the presence of a minyan after the Torah has been removed from the ark on every weekday Holy Day. They are found in our Selichot prayers, and recited often in the traditional Ashkenazic synagogue during fast days. They are spoken at the beginning and end of Yom Kippur
The words are known as the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy. Maimonides taught that these are not to be considered qualities inherent in God, but as the method of God’s activities, while others say they are the ways of God which Moses sought to know and with which God responded to Moses.
While the Kabbalists began the counting of the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy with the words, Eil rachoom, God is merciful or compassionate (depends on translator), others included the repeated Adonai, Adonai within the counting. The word Adonai is used to connate God’s mercy. Rashi teaches that the first Adonai alludes to God having mercy on the sinner before he sins and the other alludes to having mercy on the sinner after he sins.
We learn, as God proclaimed (Adonai, Adonai) to Moses, that God (Eil) is compassionate to all according to their needs, and is merciful (rachoom) to all humans that they may not be distressed, and is gracious (v’chanoon) to humans already in distress, and is slow to anger (erech apayim) to allow the sinner to repent or make Teshuvah and is abundant in kindness (v’rav-chesed), and in truth (v’emet) or faithfulness in carrying out promises. God extends mercy to the thousandth generation (notzer chesed laalafim) and forgives iniquities committed with premeditation (noser avon) and transgression (v’feshah) and sin (v’hatah) and grants pardon (v’nakeh). But God is not all forgiving, certainly not to those who eschew Teshuvah and, as we go on to read in Torah, God pays heed to the iniquities of the parents through the fourth generation of their progeny.
It is said that we all, each of us is created in God’s image. We are to be holy because God is holy. As we read and study Torah, we strive to find God and God’s ways as written down by the rabbis. May we also look inward to find in ourselves God’s ways of mercy and compassion, of kindness and truthfulness, of caring and giving and forgiveness, of justice and tough loving and graciousness, and, above all, of respect for all of God’s creatures and God’s creations.
Ken Yehe Retzon.