In this week's Torah portion, Moses asks God to allow him to behold God’s Presence (Exodus 33:18). Literally, the word used that we translate as presence (or glory) is כְּבֹד, or kavod. This term, when combined with God’s name (כְּבֹד יְהוָה), can itself be one of the names of God. This presence is a manifestation of God on Earth. The pillar of fire and column of smoke that follow the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai are described as kavod YHVH, as is the mysterious force that is present in the Tabernacle, and later, the courtyard of the Temple, that receives the animal sacrifices. This power is so terrible and profound that it can kill a human being unprepared to receive it. In the Book of Leviticus, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush into the Tabernacle with incense pans burning with “אֵשׁ זָרָה, or alien fire” [Leviticus 10: 1], and are immediately struck dead. The term used for the Presence of God in Leviticus 10:2 is יְהוָה לִפְנֵי, or before the Face of God. This is another expression, used with similar meaning to the Presence of God. Thus, Moses’ request is audacious and perilous, because an ordinary man would be killed in such an interaction.
Moses wakes up the next morning, and alone, climbs Mount Sinai, bringing with him two tablets of stone. At the summit, God descended in a cloud, stood with Moses, and proclaimed the name of the LORD [Exodus 34: 5]. The nature of the proclamation, given in the next two verses, is one of the foundational scriptural passages of the Jewish religion, and is known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The enumeration is traditional, as is the interpretation.
1. יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion before a person sins.
2. יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion after a person has sinned.
3. אֵל: El. One of the more ancient names of God. Mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need.
4. רַחוּם: Rachum, or Merciful. Merciful, that humankind may not be distressed.
5. חַנּוּן: Chanun, or Gracious. Gracious if humankind is already in distress.
6. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם: Erech Apayim, or Slow to Anger.
7. רַב-חֶסֶד: Rav Chesed, or Great Loving-kindness.
8. אֱמֶת: Emet, or Truth.
9. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים : Notser Chesed La’alafim, or Keeping Loving-kindness unto the thousandth generation.
- נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן : Noseh Avon, or Forgiving Iniquity.
- נֹשֵׂא פֶשַׁע : Noseh Peshah, or Forgiving Transgression.
- נֹשֵׂא חַטָּאָה : Noseh Chata’ah,
or Forgiving Sin.
- וְנַקֵּה: V’naqeh, or And
This passage gets recited, given a quorum of worshippers, on every holy day that does not coincide with the Sabbath, and also on Yom Kippur Eve.
This, the Book of Exodus tells us, is God’s way of showing Himself to Moses. In other places in the Torah, God reveals to mortals either through an angel or group of angels, like He did with Abraham and Jacob, among others; or through a voice, as He did with Moses and Aaron. We know that direct revelation can be deadly to the unprepared and uninitiated. In a real sense, God is merciful to humankind by not revealing Himself directly to us, which would kill us.
In the middle of the 16th century, the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote Tomer Devorah, or The Palm Tree of Deborah (published posthumously in 1588). This was a book of Mussar, or ethics. In it, he advises the reader that the best way to lead a moral life is to imitate God. To do this, the reader is shown the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and is given a chapter each in which Cordovero explores how to imitate that particular attribute. In the introduction, he makes an astonishing claim, which deserves to be quoted in length:
“[God is] a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffers it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forefend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner's hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam. And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow - and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ - He does not, on this account, withhold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words. This is why the ministering angels refer to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as ‘the patient King.’ And this is the meaning of the prophet's words: ‘Who is a God unto Thee?’ He means: ‘Thou, the good and merciful, art God, with the power to avenge and claim Thy debt, yet Thou art patient and bearest insult until man repents.’ Behold this is a virtue man should make his own, namely, to be patient and allow himself to be insulted even to this extent and yet not refuse to bestow of his goodness to the recipients.
…for a destroying angel is created whenever a man sins, as we have been taught: ‘He who commits a sin acquires a prosecutor for himself,’ who stands before the Holy One, Blessed is He, saying: ‘So-and-so made me.’ As no creature can exist without the divine flow of power how does the destroying angel who stands before Him exist? It would only be right if the Holy One, Blessed is He, were to say: ‘I will not nourish this destroying angel, let him go to the one who made him to be sustained by him.’ If He were to say this the destroyer would at once descend to snatch the sinner's soul or to cut it off or the sinner would be obliged to expiate his offence in creating the destroyer by suitable punishment unto the latter is made naught. The Holy One, Blessed is He, does not behave in this fashion. He bears the sin and endures it. He nourishes the destroyer and sustains it as He does the whole world until one of the three things happens. Either the sinner repents and makes an end of the destroying angel by the severity of the penances he inflicts upon himself. Or the righteous Judge brings the destroyer to naught by bringing suffering or death upon the sinner. Or the sinner descends to Hell to pay his debt.
This is the meaning of Cain's plea ‘My sin is too great to bear,’ interpreted by our Rabbis of blessed memory as: ‘Thou bearest (that is to say, Thou nourisheth and sustaineth) the whole world; is my sin so heavy that Thou canst not bear it (that is, sustain it until I repent)?’
This is the greatest quality of tolerance, that He nourishes and sustains the evil creature brought from which a man should learn until the latter repents. From which a man should learn the degree of patience in bearing his neighbor's yoke and the evils done by his neighbor even when those evils still exist. So that even when his neighbor offends he bears with him until the wrong is righted or until it vanishes of its own accord and so forth.”
This illustrates the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy in a very remarkable way. The image that Cordovero creates is that of a sinner doing something that offends God, and having God exert more energy into preserving the sinner than He does in correcting the sin. God could easily roll back His Divine blessing of protection an iota in reaction to the sin, but He does not. If God bears our sins which are insults directed at Him, with such patience, surely we can bear the insults of our fellow mortals with the same equanimity.
Cordovero personifies the offense that sin creates as an avenging angel, or demon, that exists to devour the soul of the sinner, and God’s love for us is so great that God keeps the demon from devouring us even when our sin creates the demon. The demon needs energy to sustain its existence, and a just God could demand that we provide the energy or life-force that the demon requires, but instead nourishes the demon until a) the sinner repents and does penance for the sin, b) God brings suffering or death upon the sinner, or c) the sinner descends into Hell (literally, Gehinnom, or Purgatory) to burn off his sin before entering the World to Come, or the afterlife. I have not encountered a more striking illustration of the nearly-unfathomable forgiving nature of God, who could destroy us with the tiniest relenting of his awesome merciful protection, and yet suffers our insults to Him with great patience.