Book Review: the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy



   
    September 2011          
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Book Review: In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot

By Jay Levinson

In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot
by Ezra Bick
Jerusalem: Maggid Books and Yeshivat Har Etzion (2011/5771)

Rabbi Ezra Bick, a Yeshiva University graduate now teaching at Jerusalem’s Har Etzion Yeshiva, has written a fascinating analysis of the Thirteen Attribures י"ג מידות), making all of us stop and think what they mean as we recite the Selichot prayers leading up to Yom Kippur.

According to Bick’s analysis, Selichot is modeled after the Afternoon Service, each beginning with Ashrei and Half-Kaddish. Bick postulates that the next paragraphs of Selichot are akin to the first three blessing of the Amidah. The Thirteen Attributes follow the thirteen middle blessings of the Amida. Then come the final paragraphs of Selichot, in parallel with the end of the Amidah..

There are different ideas amongst classical commentators as to how to count the Thirteen Attributes. Bick prefers the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, counting each of the first two words as a separate attribute. One relates to the Al-mighty before man has sinned; the other has to do after sin (also per Rashi).

In very exacting and philosophic language the author cites a wide range of traditional sources, from the Bible and the Talmud to Rav Soleveitchik and Rav Hutner, to support his interpretations.

The ideas raised are often unique. For example, what does it mean, “Notzer Chesed La’alafim (Preserves Kindness for Thousands of Generations)? According to Bick, it is not that we rely upon the righteousness of the Patriarchs for our sins to be forgiven. A very unique interpretation is given, “…we must understand and commit ourselves to join the generational chain, to sense that we continue the project begun by our patriarchs.” It is not that we invoke the virtues of past generations to protect us; rather, we commit ourselves to following in the ways of the Patriarchs.

The Thirteen Attributes do not give us a free ride to ridding ourselves of sin. In no way can we merely recite them and assume that all is forgiven. “Atonement … demands sincere repentance and removes the stain [of sin] entirely. We must repent.” As Bick clearly explains in quite direct terms regarding atonement, “…the Divine Attibutes of Mercy are not predicated upon teshuva. Repentance is a goal of Divine Mercy, not a prerequisite. The Attributes of Mercy enable existence … so that teshuva can eventually be achieved.” What is “Erech Apayim?” In simple language, the Al-mighty in his mercy delays punishment for our sins, so that we can repent. He wants us to mend our ways and come to true remorse for our misdeeds.

The Al-mighty gives us every opportunity to repent. As odd as it might seem, this is not a task that we can accomplish by ourselves. Without Divine mercy we would be called to judgment and be punished immediately for our sins. We need the His mercy to help us repent. In the final analysis, however, the challenge is ours to take advantage of His will and mercy, and repent!

The Thirteen Attributes culminate in V’Nakeh (“And cleanses),” which can more or less summarize Bick’s philosophical ideas. As noted, “The Attributes of Mercy allow the world to exist despite the occurrence of sin” so that we can return to the ways of the Al-mighty.

This book is recommended to those with a strong philosophical bent and who are interested in getting a better grasp of a serious prayer that we all too often take for granted. The book is not meant for perusing quickly. It must be ready carefully, allowing thoughtful consideration of the many points raised.

This reviewer can honestly say that the book has contributed significantly to understanding this year’s Selichos prayers.

~~~~~~~

from the September 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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