And Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed (Exodus 34:6). R. Yochanan said, “Had not Torah written this, it would be impossible to say this. This teaches that the Holy One of Blessing wrapped himself [in a tallit, prayer shawl] like a prayer leader and demonstrated to Moses the order of prayer. [God] said to him, ‘Any time that Israel sins, let them perform this order of prayer before Me and I will forgive them.’”
Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6) I am [God] before a person sins, and I am [God] after a person sins and repents.
In TMT #54 we examined the Gemara immediately preceding the passage above. There, three rabbis cited three biblical verses that they interpret to prove God’s desire to act out of loving kindness rather than stern justice. God prefers mercy and forgiveness to judgement and punishment. The third verse cited is Exodus 34:6-7 which expresses what has come to be known as the Thirteen Attributes of God: Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.
The first set of attributes (prior to the semi-colon) are those we associate with a loving, merciful, and forgiving God; the second set are those of a stern judge who meets out punishment. In TMT #54, the Rabbis seek to reconcile these seemingly opposing aspects of the Divine personality and temperament by saying that God initially sits on the Throne of Justice, but then moves to the Throne of Mercy because God desires to forgive us. In this week’s passage above (which follows last week’s passage in the Gemara) the Rabbis interpret the opening words of Exodus 34:6.
According to the Torah, “Adonai passed before [Moses]…” prior to reciting the Thirteen Attributes. The expression “passed before” is also how the Rabbis describe a shaliach tzibbur (public prayer leader), who is said to “pass before” the ark. This provides a linguistic opening for the Rabbis to envision God as acting the part of a shaliach tzibbur in order to teach Moses how to lead the community in prayer whenever they have sinned and are in need of forgiveness. Given the verses’ context in the Torah—Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah a second time, following the incident of the Golden Calf—this is a touching interpretation. God nearly wiped out the Israelites after they worshiped the Golden Calf; the Rabbis’ contention that God now teaches Moses how to invoke divine forgiveness bespeaks just how desperately God wants to forgive those who sin, even when the sin is idolatry.
As the Rabbis imagine the scene, so keenly does God wish to be able to pardon the Israelites, that God dons a tallit and demonstrates to Moses how to pray and what to say to illicit God’s compassionate forgiveness. This highly anthropomorphic image of God—in human form wrapped in a tallit—appears to have caused some discomfort, which is reflected in R. Yochanan’s defensive contention that Torah itself makes the claim that God personally tutored Moses. Otherwise, R. Yochanan contends, no one would dare to say such a thing about God!
The Rabbis next interpret, Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6). Why is God’s Name doubled in the verse? They explain that the first iteration of “Adonai” applies to our relationship with God prior to violating the covenant; the second “Adonai” affirms our relationship with God after we have sinned. While we might well fear that sin distances us from God, in reality God remains very much concerned about us and attached to us regardless of our behavior. No doubt this interpretation was meant to be a reassuring message to people that even if they felt they had strayed far from God and violated serious dictates of the covenant, God remains in relationship with them and welcomes their teshuvah (repentance and return) at any time. God’s love and connection are eternal and unconditional. Teshuvah (repentance) is easier when one knows that God will receive it favorably.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- The image of God as a prayer leader wrapped in a tallit raises the question of how we imagine and speak about God. On Rosh Hashanah, just one week away, we will deploy numerous images of God, chief among them “Father/Parent and Ruler” (Avinu malkeinu). Throughout the High Holy Day season, we will add many more vivid metaphors, including God as Shepherd, Potter, Lover, Friend. Which of these metaphors help you in thinking about your relationship with God? Are any of them a hindrance? Why?
- The Talmud seems to be saying that if we go through certain motions—specifically, the recitation of prescribed prayers—God will (automatically?) forgive. Where is teshuvah (repentance) in this process? (See the baraita below, which appears on the same page of Talmud as our passage.) Does the recital require or inspire a certain state of mind? Or is it a workaround to genuine teshuvah?
- How do you use the prayers, music, scriptural readings, and the atmosphere of the High Holy Days to help you do teshuvah (repentance)?
They challenged this [from a baraita]: If one repents between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], he is pardoned. If he did not repent between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], even if he brought all the rams of Nevayot [the finest rams; see Isaiah 60:7] that exist [as offerings] he is not pardoned. (Rosh Hashanah 17b)
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