ow can we enter Yom Kippur with hope when we feel the weight of our sins? The very first Yom Kippur occurred on the 10th of Tishrei in the year 2448, after the Sin of the Golden Calf. By all standards and measures, Cheit Ha’eigel should have been catastrophic. It should have stopped the Midbar journey in its tracks and put a permanent end to the destiny and glory of Klal Yisrael.

Instead, Moshe’s tefillos and Klal Yisrael’s teshuvah precipitated a new beginning, a second set of Luchos, and, astoundingly, a priceless gift — the Yud Gimmel Middos Harachamim, the 13 Attributes of Hashem’s Mercy, which the Brisker Rav describes as an infinite treasure. It’s a power pack that generates kindliness for all generations to come.


A Lifetime Guarantee

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy form the centerpiece of our Selichos prayers, and they are recited repeatedly during both Maariv and Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. Their potency can be compared to the power of dynamite. Ordinary holes and tunnels can be dug with picks and shovels, but when the job is too vast and the rock is impenetrable, only dynamite can do the job. In the most dire of situations, when merits are scarce and when we feel most vulnerable, we can tap into this remarkable resource, which comes with a guarantee for a lifetime — and more.

Hashem revealed these attributes to Moshe with these words: I shall call out with the Name of Hashem to teach you a new mode of prayer…. You may think that once zechus avos, the merit of the forefathers, is depleted, there is no longer hope [for forgiveness]… but when you recite [these words] before Me, you will be answered, for My mercy is inexhaustible. (Rashi, Shemos 33:19)

Later, Hashem indicates that this assurance is not merely a promise — it is a bris, a covenant He has forged with His people. Rabi Yehudah said: A bris has been established in regard to the Yud Gimmel Middos — they do not return empty (Rosh Hashanah 17b). When recited with meaning, the Yud Gimmel Middos will always be at least partially answered. The sincere recital of the various manifestations of Hashem’s mercy and love causes them to be activated and implemented.

What is the significance of the number 13? As numbers go, it seems, well, unwieldly. Note, though, that the most celebrated listing of numbers — the song of “Echad Mi Yodeia,” which links the numbers with significant elements in Jewish life — begins with one and concludes at 13. The 13th verse is shloshah asar mi yodeia, the Thirteen Attributes of Hashem’s mercy. Why do we close the song with this?

In the physical world, which reflects the spiritual realms, the smallest unit of three-dimensional space is a cube, which has 12 edges. But there is a 13th factor in the construction of a cube. The 12 lines are not placed haphazardly; they are juxtaposed into a cubic shape to form a unit. One way to express their structural union is to identify a center point in the core of the cube as the focus that unites these 12 lines. This is the 13th factor.

Since 13 represents unity, it is now clear why the 13 Attributes of Hashem form the last stitch of “Echad Mi Yodeia,” for their mention returns us to the beginning, “One is Hashem Who has created the heaven and earth.” Thirteen closes the circle, for it, too, describes the Oneness of Hashem.

We are asserting that, although He chooses to manifest varied degrees and types of kindliness at different times, there is only One Hashem, and all His attributes emanate from His Oneness.

Thus it is no surprise that the gematria, the numerical value, of the letters that make up the word echad (one) is 13. It follows also that 13 tribes (Yosef is subdivided into Ephraim and Menashe) comprise the unified nation of Klal Yisrael.

How did it happen that the sin of the Golden Calf brought about the revelation of these 13 middos? After Cheit Ha’eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu asked to gain a greater knowledge of Hashem, in order to direct the nation in His proper worship.


To Know Him

It is clearly Hashem’s will that we know Him as much as we can. “Understand and know Me, that I am Hashem who exercises love, justice, and righteousness, in the earth, for in these things I delight” (Yirmiyahu 9:23). We cannot fulfill the mitzvah of v’halachta bidrachav, of emulating Hashem, if we do not recognize His attributes. And it is only by knowing Him that we are able to love Him; one cannot bond with a stranger. (Significantly, the word for love —ahavah —also has a gematria of 13!)

In seeking a deeper understanding, Moshe made two specific requests. The first: “If I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, make Your ways known to me, and I will know you, so that I will find favor in Your eyes” (Shemos 33:13).

The second request is more pointed: “Show me Your glory” (33:18).

And Hashem’s responses: To the first request, He says, “I will pass all My goodness before you and I will call out with the Name of Hashem before you, and I will show favor when I show favor, and I shall have mercy when I have mercy” (33:19).

The second request, however, is refused: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live” (33:20).

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares this to an astronomer who wishes to study the sun. He cannot approach it at any useful distance and he can’t gaze at its blinding rays, but he can observe it indirectly. He can form an understanding of the sun by noting its effect on Earth: It heats, illuminates, marks day and night, effects the seasons, and enables photosynthesis.

Similarly, Hashem tells Moshe: You cannot see My face, for no human can know Me directly. But I will fulfill your first request. I will pass My goodness before you, so you can see My attributes of mercy, and I will call out My Name before you — I’ll put into words what you will see, and you’ll know Me from My ways of kindliness, My interactions with earthly creations.


Message of the Tallis

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) teaches us how Hashem related the attributes to Moshe: Rabi Yochanan said, “Were it not written in the Torah, it would be impossible for us to say it: Hashem wrapped Himself in a tallis as one who leads the congregation and demonstrated to Moshe this order of prayer.” He said to him: “Whenever Yisrael sins, let them perform before Me this arrangement of prayer, and I shall forgive them.”

Why the roleplay? Why couldn’t Hashem have merely instructed us to recite the middos? What is the message of the chazzan wrapped in his tallis?

In earlier times, before the printing press, not all shul attendees were familiar with the liturgy, and so the chazzan often said the words and they repeated after him. Thus the image of the chazzan tells us that Hashem is modeling for us how we must pronounce the attributes in order to actualize their power. This is where the tallis comes in.

The Maharal reminds us that the purpose of a prayer shawl is to facilitate kavanah during tefillah. When the supplicant cannot see to the right or left, he is less distracted and can concentrate better. In order to activate the promise of the 13 middos, we must focus on their meaning.

In a deeper sense, the tallis metaphor means that the person looks neither to the right nor to the left for other sources of help. As we recite these words, we must trust that Hashem’s mercy is our only source of salvation.

Finally, and most crucially, the tallis indicates that just as Hashem is draped in these middos, we must follow suit. We must also clothe ourselves in mercy and kindness. This is why Hashem’s instructions to Moshe are: Whenever Yisrael sins, let them perform before Me this arrangement of prayer — they must perform, not only recite. We must recite the attributes with the intention of emulating them. When we acquire these middos and relate to our fellow man with compassion and kindness, Hashem will treat us in a similar manner.

This explains why the attributes are so specific. It’s not enough to know, and proclaim, that Hashem is merciful. If we are to emulate Hashem, we need to understand each attribute, for each portrays another dimension of mercifulness. The word Keil, Powerful One, for example, refers to Hashem’s power to patiently bear insult and continue to sustain the life of a person who is using that very life in rebellion against Him! Man emulates his Creator when he bears insult and even bestows kindness on His antagonist.

But there is still more. To the degree that we emulate and identify with Hashem’s ways — performing acts of kindness, feeling another’s pain, considering the feelings of others, greeting others cheerfully, treating them with patience and understanding, and forgiving insults — we are looking at the world through His eyes, identifying with Him, and cleaving to Him. This is the only way we can “know” Him.


Portal of Hope

Thus the Thirteen Attributes are more than a list of traits, and even more than a lifeline. They are the framework for our relationship with Hashem. The Shelah delineates intriguing parallels between each of the Yud Gimmel Middos and the corresponding principle of the Yud Gimmel Ikarim, the Rambam’s Thirteen Articles of Faith. When we cleave to the middos, we identify with Hashem, thus reinforcing our belief in His existence and His providence.

Another avenue to achieve dveikus to Hashem is by studying His Torah. Indeed, the Rokeach links the yud gimmel middos shehaTorah nidreshes bahen, the 13 hermeneutic rules of Torah interpretation, with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. If one learns Torah properly, he is in effect cleaving to Hashem, and the attributes of mercy will be activated for him. Since the Zohar speaks of the unity of Yisrael v’Oraisa v’Kudsha Brich Hu, the Jewish People, the Torah and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, it is both fitting and fascinating that each of these is linked by a set of 13, the number denoting unity.

Most striking of all is the fact that our attitudes and behaviors toward our fellow man should figure so largely in our relationship with our Creator, and should affect the outcome of our judgment on Yom Kippur. The Gemara tells us that Hashem overlooks and forgives the sins of he who does the same to others. This, says Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah, is a “pesach tikvah,” a portal of hope for the penitent sinner.

“I have staked my pegs on the Thirteen Attributes [from the Ne’ilah service].” May the merit of reciting these words with meaning and trust, and implementing these attributes in our interactions, effect a favorable judgment for all of Klal Yisrael.

Sources include the teachings of Rav Chaim Friedlander, Rav Avigdor Miller, Rav Elya Svei, Rav Shimshon Pincus, and Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers (ArtScroll)

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 609. Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is a menaheles at Bais Yaakov Seminary in Montreal, and is a popular lecturer for adults.