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Our Secret Weapon

With the conviction that we are nothing, we declare Him King



The end of Yom Kippur hits us like an orchestral crescendo. After 40 days of intense work, we’re as close as possible to resembling malachim. Our physical bodies have been impoverished with the five inuyim, reduced to sheaths for our soaring neshamos. The stench of our sins has been cleansed from our essence by receiving mechilah from those whom we have hurt and through the constant repetition of Vidui. The dramatic chazaras hashatz in Mussaf, where we recreate the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash, presses the reset button on Klal Yisrael, and we’re once again k’ish echad b’lev echad at Har Sinai. It has been a day of impassioned tefillos, of breaking down barriers between us and our Creator.

And yet and yet and yet.

There’s a feeling of existential emptiness. As if we’ve done nothing. As if there remains a massive impenetrable wall between us and Hashem.

In many shuls, the rav gives a rousing derashah before Ne’ilah. He warns us that the curtains are coming down on our once-in-a-year opportunity to cleanse the mistakes of our past and set ourselves up for success.

“P’sach lanu shaar, b’eis ne’ilas shaar, ki fana yom — Open for us the Heavenly Gate, at this time when the Gate is closing, for the day is fading away….”

In desperation we look for a secret weapon to break down that wall between us and Hashem and open the Heavenly Gate. Fortunately for us, Hashem gave us that weapon many years ago.

It’s the Yud Gimmel Middos shel Rachamim, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.



Before we take a closer look at our “secret weapon,” a few introductory words: The Yud Gimmel Middos shel Rachamim are said daily by Sephardim when they recite Tachanun with a minyan. Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim say them throughout the year during Selichos. Interestingly, Sephardim say them when reciting Selichos during Yom Kippur day, Ashkenazim only say them on Yom Kippur night. They’re also said on Rosh Hashanah and Yamim Tovim when taking out the sifrei Torah, often with chazzanus and fanfare. However, the crucial introductory phrase, “vayaavor Hashem al panav vayikra,” is omitted. This, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay, takes away its power. It de-weaponizes them.

Ne’ilah is different. The Yud Gimmel Middos shel Rachamim take center stage and are said again and again. Some kehillos are careful to say them 13 times. They’re surrounded by some of the most powerful piyutim of the year, composed by giants such as Rabbeinu Gershom of 11th-century Mainz, Germany; Rav Yitzchak ben Shmuel (Ri Hazaken) of 12th-century Dampierre, France, and the great 9th-century Italian paytanim, Rav Silano and Rav Shephatia.

Don’t be misled by their poetic beauty! The piyutim are the proverbial peanut butter and jelly that makes the bread palatable. It’s the nutritious bread that we want. The piyutim are there to frame the Yud Gimmel Middos for maximum effect.

My opinion: It’s better to say a piyut slowly with kavanah than to rush them to keep up with the tzibbur. However, it’s crucial to join the tzibbur for the Yud Gimmel Middos with its introductory paragraph. So, stop at the end of the sentence, join the tzibbur for the Yud Gimmel Middos, and then return to the next sentence in the piyut you were reciting.

What’s the secret of our “secret weapon”?

Just 40 days after Matan Torah, Klal Yisrael had fallen from the greatest heights to the lowest depths. Cheit Ha’eigel was an unforgivable sin, a red line crossed, with no hope of return. Zechus Avos had been lost. The Nation of Israel’s oblivion was as guaranteed as the sun setting in fiery demise.

One man believed that the sun could still rise. Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded on behalf of his people, relentlessly begging for the impossible. He succeeded.

The pasuk says, “And Hashem passed before him [Moshe] and proclaimed” (Shemos 34:6). Rabi Yochanan said, “… the pasuk teaches us that HaKadosh Baruch Hu wrapped Himself in a tallis like a shaliach tzibbur, and showed Moshe the structure of the order of the prayer [of the Yud Gimmel Middos shel Rachamim]. He said to him, ‘Whenever the Jewish People sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order [i.e., say these 13 Attributes], and I will forgive them.’ ” [Rosh Hashanah 17b]

That’s it? At first glance this makes no sense. Moshe Rabbeinu is told that the solution to forgiving our sins, no matter how grave, is to press 13 magic buttons in order, and voilà! All is forgiven.

We firmly believe that we earn our sechar (reward for our deeds) both in This World and the Next. That’s intuitive. L’havdil, in economics we say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Chazal explain this logically by using the phrase nehama d’kisufa, the bread of shame (see Ramchal, Daas Tevunos 18). They noted that human nature only enjoys bread when it’s earned. When we receive undeserved gifts, we feel shame.

Similarly, forgiveness for our past misdeeds should be earned with appropriate teshuvah. How can it be that our past is erased by just saying 13 powerful phrases?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Sisa 395) gives us some backstory to Moshe’s tefillos on our behalf:

At that time, HaKadosh Baruch Hu showed him [Moshe] the otzros [vaults] of sechar set aside for tzaddikim. [After showing him the first otzar] Moshe asked: “Ribbono shel Olam, for whom is this?”

Hashem answered, “For those who give tzedakah.”

“And for whom is this [second otzar]?”

“For those who took care of orphans.”

And this continued, otzar after otzar.

Finally, he was shown the largest otzar of all. “And for whom is this?”

[Hashem responded:] “You have just seen the otzros that are received by those who are worthy. But for those who are not worthy, those who have nothing, they receive this otzar for free.”

Of course, this makes our question stronger. How can someone who “has nothing” receive the largest otzar of all? Where’s the logic and where’s the justice?



To unlock the secret of the Yud Gimmel Middos, we need to study an enigmatic gemara in Brachos (7a), popularized by Reb Avraham Fried’s classic song  "Tanyeh":

Tanyeh, [the Kohein Gadol] Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha related, “I once entered [the Kodesh Hakodoshim on Yom Kippur] to offer ketores. I saw Akasriel, Kah Hashem Tzevakos, seated upon a high and exalted throne. And He said to me: ‘Yishmael my son, bless Me.’

“I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your Rachamim overcomes Your anger and may Your Rachamim prevail over your other middos. May You deal with Your children with Your middah of Rachamim. And may You deal with them lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the letter of the law.’

“Hashem nodded His head [as if He was saying ‘Amen to my brachah].”

Clearly this Gemara contains layers and layers of kabbalistic depth, way beyond our pay scale. Nevertheless, we can gather snippets of information that are eye-opening.

First, the story happened on Yom Kippur, implying the possibility that the revelation that happened was something unique to the nature of that awesome day.

Second, when Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim, he had a vision of Hashem expressed with the name Akasriel. This name is associated with Hashem’s, Keser, His Crown.

Finally, we have this remarkable exchange between Rabi Yishmael and Hashem. Hashem asks Rabi Yishmael for a brachah, which is seemingly incomprehensible. Hashem is by definition the Mekor Habrachah, the Source of all Blessing. It’s like Niagara Falls asking for a glass of water.

Rabi Yishmael responds by asking Hashem to go lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the letter of the law. It seems to be an inappropriate request. Why should Hashem break His law? The law is how a king runs his realm, how a country enjoys stability through justice, law, and order. A king can be merciful, but mercy is part of the system of justice. A judge can say, we will lower your speeding ticket because this is a first-time offense. But it’s still justice.

Indeed, the whole of Rosh Hashanah is built on the framework of Hashem running His world with justice. The shofar arouses Hashem to move from the Throne of Din (strict judgment) to the Throne of Rachamim (merciful judgment). But it’s still justice. We don’t ask Hashem to break His laws. Lifnim mishuras hadin is breaking the law. A realm cannot exist without law.



Let’s try and put the pieces of the puzzle together. Some of our readers may be familiar with the spectacle of England’s Imperial State Crown placed on the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as she was lying in state. It was visually overpowering, adorned with nearly 3,000 precious stones. It represented her majesty, her sovereignty.

A crown contains a deep idea. The correct place for a crown is on the head of a monarch. The position of the crown is a fundamental symbol of royalty. If the king represents the country, the crown represents that there is something beyond and above the king himself. In the language of our story, if the full height of the king represents the rules of how a country is run, whether with strictness or with mercy, then the crown represents that the king has something beyond and above his own self.

Only the king can break his own rules.

In other words, his crown represents his ability to go lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the letter of his law. This power must be used sparingly. Otherwise the king will make a mockery of his own judicial system, and his country will not function. For example, the “crown” of the president of the United States includes his constitutional ability to grant pardons for federal crimes. If he wants to be taken seriously, he won’t pardon all his criminal friends who have been rightfully sent to prison.

How does that work when we are talking about the realm of the King of Kings?

Hashem wants nothing more than to break His own rules and unleash His unconditional and unlimited love for His people, expressed through the power of His Crown. However, He will only do so when Rabi Yishmael, representing Klal Yisrael, gives Him a brachah. Why is that?

The word brachah is associated with the word breichah, which means an accessible water source (Teshuvos HaRashba 5:51). Hashem is the source of all blessing; all goodness comes from Him. When we bless Hashem, we open a deeper water source, a new channel of Hashem’s goodness, which comes from His Crown. The brachah we give Hashem precipitates His ability to go lifnim mishuras hadin.

Here’s the catch. To access the Crown and bless Hashem, we need to reach a complete state of humility. We need to negate our own egos until our essence is totally focused on bringing out His Malchus, to the exclusion of anything else (see Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados Menachos 29a). Hashem invokes the “break-My-rules” power of His Crown when the request comes from His nation who recognize that nothing exists outside of His Kingship and Crown.

Only on Yom Kippur can we reach that moment. To bless Hashem, you need to be on the level of Rabi Yishmael, the holiest man, entering the holiest place, at the holiest time.



We can now understand the lesson that Hashem taught Moshe Rabbeinu when he saw the largest otzar of all, destined for those have nothing. “For those who have nothing” means for those whose self-perception is that they deserve nothing. Everyone else, proud of their accomplishments, expects a reward and that’s what they receive in measured proportion. Those who feel they deserve nothing unleash Hashem’s ability to go lifnim mishuras hadin and in turn they receive boundless reward.

By the way, we can now understand why Moshe Rabbeinu, in the introductory paragraph to the Yud Gimmel Middos, is referred to as just anav, the humble one. The humblest man of all is the exact person to teach us the unlimited power of the Yud Gimmel Middos.

For 40 days we toil to reconcile ourselves with our Creator. Thirty days of ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li, followed by coronating the King with the shofar of Rosh Hashanah. Ten days of introspection and teshuvah and working on reconciling with every Jew climax with the multi-faceted avodah of Yom Kippur.

And yet and yet and yet. We feel nothing.


We have now reached total nothingness. We now have absolute clarity that we do not even deserve the right to breathe without Hashem’s beneficence. We have now reached the moment when Hashem lovingly smiles and says: Now I can give you My secret weapon. Now I can give you My 13-fold formula that unleashes the otzar without end. Now that you have become nothing, I can make you infinitely powerful.



Shlomo Hamelech describes Yom Kippur as yom chasunaso, Hashem’s wedding day (Rashi, Taanis 26b). For 2,448 years He searched for a partner in the lower world who would fully understand the true majesty of the King of Kings. He found Knesses Yisrael, a simple maiden, filled with the beauty that comes with modesty. This day is also described by Shlomo Hamelech as yom simchas libo, the day of His great rejoicing. Hashem now had a queen with whom He could share everything.

The awesome day of Yom Kippur ends with a shofar blast, symbolizing the freedom of slaves. It also symbolizes our own freedom. Freedom from the shackles of our physicality and freedom from the shackles of our ego. We can devote ourselves completely to our duties as Hashem’s queen.

Once upon a time, in a long-forgotten age, humanity was challenged with a plague called coronavirus. Sarcasm intended. It’s sad that one of the powerful lessons of those times may have vanished. It wasn’t lost on us that the word corona means crown. The scientists who in 1968 came up with the name thought that, under a microscope, the virus they were looking at resembled a solar corona.

The world came to a grinding halt. We felt totally helpless. And with that deep conviction that mankind, with all its science, was ultimately nothing, we declared, v’yitnu lecha Keser Meluchah, we give You the Crown of Royalty. You and nobody else.

This year, may Hashem help us return to that clarity. May Hashem in turn unleash, lifnim mishuras hadin, all the otzros of goodness for His queen, His beloved nation, Klal Yisrael.



What thoughts should we have as we unleash this explosion of boundless Rachamim from Above?

There’s a discussion among the early sources how to count the 13 attributes. For example, is “Hashem, Hashem” two of the attributes or just introductory words? Is “lo yenakeh” an attribute?

Selichos Be’er Yaakov (Panet) brings 13 different opinions as to how to count them!

There is further discussion as to what each attribute actually means. And of course, there are layers upon layers of depth to each one. Presented here is one possible path, where the focus is on simplicity and relatability:

  1. ה' Hashem’s Rachamim is in full force before we sin, despite His knowing that we will sin.
  2. ה' He continues to relate to us with the same Rachamim, even after we sin.
  3. קל His Chesed is powerful, nothing can stand in its way.
  4. רחום He is compassionately involved in our lives, even for seemingly trivial matters.
  5. וחנון His Chesed is free, not dependent on our actions.
  6. ארך אפים His patience allows us chance after chance to do teshuvah.
  7. ורב חסד Hashem’s Chesed hugs every Jew, no matter how distant.
  8. ואמת He never reneges on His word.
  9. נוצר חסד לאלפים He passes the Chesed from generation to generation.
  10. נושא עון He carries the burden of our sins, even when they are intentional.
  11. ופשע And even when rebellious.
  12. וחטאה And even when unintentional, as a result of our lifestyle of apathy.
  13. ונקהHe deep cleanses all our sins, turning them into merits when we do teshuvah from love.


Rabbi Menachem Nissel is the Senior Educator of NCSY and teaches at Yeshivas Yishrei Lev and various seminaries in Yerushalayim. He is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 861)

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