YOM KIPPUR: Discovering goodness

The story of the 13 attributes of mercy is told in the Book of Exodus.

 PAINTING by the Polish artist Maurycy Gottlieb c. 1878, titled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
PAINTING by the Polish artist Maurycy Gottlieb c. 1878, titled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
he holiest day of the year is approaching – Yom Kippur – the day when we fast, purify ourselves and pray. Let us examine the essence of this sacred day and its signifi- cance in the Jewish yearly cycle. How is Yom Kippur supposed to influence a person’s life throughout the year? What can we take with us from Yom Kippur that can stay with us all year long and help us move forward in our personal journey? There is something we say repeatedly on Yom Kippur. Over and over again, we recite it together as a call to God and to ourselves – the 13 attributes of mercy.
The story of the 13 attributes of mercy is told in the Book of Exodus. Several months after the Exodus from Egypt, the nation experienced an event that occurred only once in all of history: a public revelation of God before the entire nation. This event, Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, marked the beginning of the Torah being given to the Jewish nation.
The Ten Commandments were given, and then Moses ascended Mount Sinai alone and stayed there for 40 days, during which he received the Torah in order to bequeath it to the nation waiting below.
But it turned out that a one-time occurrence, as huge and powerful as it might be, does not have a lasting impact if it is not accompanied by a profound internal process. After the nation waited for Moses for a period of time and he was late in returning, they asked to make an idol – a golden calf – that served as a representative of God.
This was a forbidden act, all the more so coming right after they heard the prohibition at Mount Sinai that clearly stipulated, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:4). But the many years of slavery and exile in Egypt left their mark on the soul of the nation, which though liberated, was still emotionally enslaved to Egyptian idolatry.
The golden calf was created and the nation began celebrating around it.
Moses had been on the mountain and was preparing to descend holding the two tablets of the covenant etched with the Ten Commandments that he received from God. After he descended and saw what the nation had done, he broke the tablets, burned the calf and punished the sinners. But the anguish Moses and the entire nation faced was severe. They understood that they had relinquished the right to be led by God.
Moses began a series of prayers and pleas, culminating with a plea to God, “Pray, let me know Your ways” (ibid. 33:13). Moses wished to know God’s ways of leading the world and to understand if there was any chance for the nation to return to its previous spiritual status.
And then God responded, “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you” (ibid. 33:9). God responded to the request of Moses and revealed His ways to him. And what were His ways? The 13 attributes of mercy: “Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, preserving loving-kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin” (ibid. 34:6-7).
Moses thus understood that Divine revelation is full of loving-kindness and compassion. When God appears, it will always be absolute benevolence.
On Yom Kippur we repeat these 13 attributes over and over again in order to internalize this profound concept. Jewish faith identifies God with eternal and complete benevolence. Indeed, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is as its name signifies – the day when God atones for all sins for anyone who shows an interest in being forgiven.
On this day, we recite the 13 attributes of mercy and understand our role and our life’s goal: to cling to God’s benevolence, to forgive, to do acts of loving-kindness, and to raise ourselves up to a wide, accepting, loving and compassionate perspective.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.