Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Thirteen Midot (attributes) in prayer -

Starting tonight and for the next two and half weeks we will repeatedly say what is called[1] the 13 Midot. I would like to address the meaning of these words, how to they fit in the prayers and what exactly are they supposed to accomplish. The source is in Shemos 34 -

ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בֶּעָנָן, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם; וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, יְהוָה. 5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
ו וַיַּעֲבֹר יְהוָה עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;
ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה--פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים, עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים. 7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.'

Moshe having descended from Har Sinai and found the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf, prays for God’s forgiveness, asks to learn God’s ways and how He runs His universe so that he could understand how to emulate Him and lead the people properly. God told Moshe that he can learn how He acts by studying the results of His action. In other words pay good attention to your surroundings, learn how God made the universe permanent and from that you will be able to deduce how God operates. The results of that speculation are the 13 Midot which are the attributes of God. Rambam describes the attribute רַחוּם as follows:

Whenever any one of His actions is perceived by us, we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him by an epithet which is formed from the verb expressing that emotion. We see, e.g., how well He provides for the life of the embryo of living beings; how He endows with certain faculties both the embryo itself and those who have to rear it after its birth, in order that it may be protected from death and destruction, guarded against all harm, and assisted in the performance of all that is required [for its development]. Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called mercy and pity. God is, therefore, said to be merciful… Such instances do not imply that God is influenced by a feeling of mercy, but that acts similar to those which a father performs for his son, out of pity, mercy and real affection, emanate from God solely for the benefit of His pious men, and are by no means the result of any impression or change -- [produced in God].” (MN 1:54).

By understanding these attributes of God and in the process assimilating them into one’s person, one starts to emulate Him.

The governor of a country, if he is a prophet, should conform to these attributes. He must perform Acts [of punishment] moderately and in accordance with justice, not merely as an outlet of his passion. He must not let loose his anger, nor allow his passion to overcome him: for all passions are bad, and they must be guarded against as far as it lies in man's power. At times and towards some persons he must be merciful and gracious, not only from motives of mercy and compassion, but according to their merits: at other times and towards other persons he must evince anger, revenge, and wrath in proportion to their guilt, but not from motives of passion”.

Nature acts without passion. It acts out of necessity. God has set those rules in place and they very effectively keep the universe going. Man emulates them not only in running society but also in his private life and in his interactions with fellow men. God gave him freedom of choice and when he decides how to act, the basis for his actions should be emulating God. Every act of a man is judged whether it is productive and therefore a good deed, or counter-productive and sin. If someone wants to repent and do the right thing, he should learn God’s ways and try to emulate them. That is the meaning of our saying these 13 Midot. We remind ourselves to look at God’s ways and emulate them. The 13 Midot have no impact on God, they change us by reminding us to seek Him. Rambam ends the Moreh with this thought (MN 3:54):

My objective is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown (Part I. liv.) that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly”.

In a separate post I will discuss which the 13 Midot are, how we count them and how they evolved into our current liturgy.

Shavua Tov.

[1] Ibn Ezra ad locum questions the validity of the number. Rambam addresses this too: “Although Moses was shown all His goodness," i.e., all His works, only the thirteen Midot are mentioned, because they include those acts of God which refer to the creation and the government of mankind, and to know these acts was the principal object of the prayer of Moses.” (1:54)

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