Music and recording © Alexander Massey, 19 May 2020
In May 2020, during the lockdown, I was attending a morning meditation session run by Rabbi Anne Brener in the USA (4.30pm for me in the UK!). She asked us how we were feeling, and I realised that I felt overwhelmed at the time, by trying to meet so many competing demands on my attention and energy. Anne suggested that I do what Moses did, and allow myself some ‘time out’. He secluded himself, and God spoke to him the ’13 attributes of mercy’ (Ex. 34:6-7). Jewish tradition teaches that when we speak to God and meditate on these attributes, we will never come away empty-handed (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b).
Sephardic and Chassidic Jews recite the 13 attributes after the daily morning Amidah (standing prayer), before the confession Vidui (confession) and Tachanun (‘supplication’). We also sing them before taking the Torah from the ark during the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, at Selichot (prayers for forgiveness) before the High Holy Days, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the new year), and on the penitential day of Yom Kippur.
I took Rabbi Anne’s advice, and went walking late one night, turning these words over in my mind. And it was then that I realised I wanted an alternative tune to the austere one that we sing in community at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This musical setting is the result of my spending time with the 13 attributes, and finding comfort in them. Rabbi Anne gave a beautiful teaching that we can recite or chant these 13 attributes after the bedtime Sh’ma, as we surrender our souls to sleep. She says that when hand ourselves to God at night, our souls can ‘marinade’ in the 13 attributes while our sleep. In the morning, our souls are returned to us, and we give thanks.
There are many different interpretations of the 13 attributes. Here are some of the more familiar ideas:
- Adonai (YHVH) – compassion before a person sins (even though aware s/he will sin)
- Adonai (YHVH) – compassion after a person has sinned
- Eil – mighty in compassion, to give all creatures according to their need
- rachum – merciful, that humankind may not be distressed
- v’chanun – and gracious if humankind is already in distress; mercy to the underserving, consoling the afflicted, raising up the oppressed
- erech apayim – slow to anger; gives the sinner time to reflect, improve and repent
- ve’rav chesed – and plenteous in kindness; to those who lack merit, tipping the scales towards good
- ve’emet – and truth
- notzer chesed la’alafim – keeping kindness unto thousands; passing benefits of one generation to the next
- noseh avon – forgiving iniquity (if repentant at intentional wrongdoing)
- vafeshah – and transgression (if repentant at intention to rebel against God)
- v’chata’ah – and sin (carelessness, apathy, lack of thought, ignorance)
- v’nakeh – and pardoning (lit. cleansing)