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Parshas Yom Kippur (5778)

READ THIS! It May Change Your Life!

During all the Selichos (penitential prayers) that are recited in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and including all the prayers that are added between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as those that are recited on Yom Kippur itself, there is one prayer that is repeated more than any other.

Can you guess which prayer it is? If you guessed “The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy”, you would be correct. [My estimate is that we recite this prayer more than one hundred times throughout the “High Holiday season”!]

The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy – “Ado-noy, Ado-noy, E-l Rachum v’Chanun etc.” (recorded in Exodus 34:6-7) - are actually the central theme of all the Selichos recited during this time of year.

What are these 13 Attributes and why are they so important for us to repeat so many times during the High Holidays?

After the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, G-d proclaimed His readiness to do away with the Jewish people and to start the nation anew with Moses. Moses felt that Israel’s sin was so beyond repair that there was no possibility of interceding on their behalf.

G-d then appeared to him in the guise of a chazzan (cantor) wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl) and taught him the Thirteen Attributes. G-d said, “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this in its proper order and I will forgive them.” So this appeal for mercy reminds us that we can always do teshuvah (repentance) and return to G-d, and that He always awaits our return to Him.

We can now see why these Thirteen Attributes play such a prominent role in our prayers during this time of year. Without them, we would have no hope. These Attributes afford us a glimpse of G-d’s incredible compassion and mercy, and give us the confidence that He will accept our teshuvah and atone for all our sins.

There is a difference of opinion among the great medieval commentators as to whether the first Name of G-d (“Ado-noy”) recorded in Exodus 34:6-7 is a separate Divine Attribute.

We follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam (mentioned in the Tosafists’ commentary to Rosh Hashanah 17b) that the first Name of G-d in the verse is the first of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, and represents the attribute of G-d’s compassion before one has sinned, while the second Name of G-d is the second of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy and represents the attribute of G-d’s compassion after one has sinned and repented.

[This is the same Name of G-d as in the First Attribute because, unlike the behavior of a human being who will distance himself from a person who has wronged him, and will often never accept him back, G-d remains unaffected and unchanged even after a person sins against Him, and can therefore accept him back with total compassion and love.]

The Rosh, in his commentary to Rosh Hashanah (ibid), asks why does one need G-d’s mercy and compassion before he sins? One answer he gives is that even though G-d knows that the person will sin in the future, His compassion for him at present remains, since the person has not yet sinned.

The Mahara”l of Prague, in his classic work Nesivos Olam (Nesiv HaTeshuvah Chapter 6), offers a simple, yet profound answer to the Rosh’s question. He writes that even one who has not sinned needs G-d’s compassion because our very existence is completely G-d’s mercy as the Creator owes His creations nothing and all that He gives us is pure kindness and compassion.

Reading these few words of the Mahara”l of Prague changed my life in a profound way - and may change your lives as well.

You see, up until now I thought like most people that in life there is a sort of “baseline” where we expect to be – in good health, with a nice family and a good job etc. – and if things ever dip below that baseline and we lose our job or get sick, G-d forbid, we begin to complain to G-d, or to anyone else who will listen, how unfair and unjust it is.

The truth is, however, that there is no “baseline” that we should come to expect in life, as G-d owes us absolutely nothing, and everything that He does give us comes from His pure mercy and compassion.

The First Attribute of Divine Mercy, according to the Mahara”l, is the reason why we have anything in our lives, even when our lives are below “baseline” and we don’t understand why things aren’t working out the way we thought they should. We must always remember that G-d owes us nothing and that whatever He gives us, even when not what we expected, is all G-d’s kindness, compassion and mercy.

This life-altering idea gave me a whole new perspective on life, as it made me realize that nothing is coming to me, and that everything I have – the good and the not so good – is an undeserved gift from G-d and nothing to complain about.

So this Yom Kippur, as we pray in the synagogue and we recite the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy over and over again, let us remember the powerful lesson the Mahara”l taught us that the very fact that we are alive at all and that we have anything at all in life is all an expression of G-d’s love for us, and that it is G-d’s compassion which sustains us every minute of our lives, even before we sin.

May we all merit to be sealed in the Book of Life this Yom Kippur.


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