By Rabbi Nancy Flam
“It’s hard to be a person.” That’s what my best friend from college says sometimes to console me when I’m having a tough time. I can’t hear those words without my heart softening. It is hard to be a person. And if the truth of that isn’t piercingly clear for you or me personally in this very moment, odds are it will be.
Today my friend Amy and I studied a couple of small pieces of Torah in the Hasidic collection, Itturei Torah (Volume 3, page 268) on the verse describing how God passed before Moses and declared God’s essential attributes (known as the Thirteen Attributes – Shelosh Esray Middot; Ex. 34: 6 – 7). About this verse Rabbi Yochanan is quoted in the Talmud as saying: “God said to Moses, ‘Every time that Israel sins, they will perform (literally: do) before me this seder (literally: order), and I will forgive them.’” The recitation of this seder – this liturgy- of the Thirteen Attributes assumed a central place in the yearly Jewish ritual enactment of forgiveness that takes place over the Days of Awe, beginning on the Saturday night before the New Year at the Selichot (“Forgiveness”) service. We Jews do indeed come before God with these very words, this seder tefillah, this liturgy of the Thirteen Attributes, and we plaintively recite them. We are comforted in knowing that, according to the rabbis, God cannot hear these words without compassion arising, without showing forgiveness. It’s as if God hears these words and softens, remembering with kindness: It’s hard to be a person.
The first small piece of Torah we studied by Alschich (1521 – 1593, Tzefat) pointed out that if one reads the Talmud text carefully one will notice that Rabbi Yochanan said that God instructed Israel to do (ya’asu) this seder before God, not say (yomru) it. Evidently, it’s not enough that we say these words to effect forgiveness. We have to enact these qualities that are attributed to God in our own lives (imitatio dei). We have to do them – to manifest them, to become them – and not just say them. That’s the work that is truly transformative. Perhaps Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching was directed to Jews in his own time who were relying too much on the ritual recitation of words alone, thinking that they would be sufficient to effect transformation, and weren’t working on themselves, cultivating day by day and challenging moment by challenging moment these essential qualities of compassion, kindness, patience and forbearance. They turned away from the hard work of being a person.
And then the second (unnamed) teacher in the anthology of comments on Rabbi Yochanan’s instruction regarding the Thirteen Attributes notes that we are told to do them “k’seder hazeh” which literally means “in this order”. Our teacher explains that this means “one should start with the first attribute: compassionate and gracious. [And as the rabbis have taught elsewhere,] just as God is compassionate and gracious, so should you be compassionate and gracious.” So, we are to “do” or make these attributes, not just say them. We are to become them in imitation of God. And furthermore, in this order: “Start with compassion. Don’t start at the end of the list: not remitting punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children…”
I don’t know who gasped first. After a very long silence in which our minds each turned to the possibility of escalating violence, of acts of vengeance, of actions that could create harm for generations, one of us said something like, “Oh my God.” In this heartbreaking time in Israel and Palestine, Torah spoke with unmistakable clarity: Don’t start at the end of the list. Start with compassion. (The end might just then disappear.)