Music and recording © Alexander Massey, 20 June 2022
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Just over two years ago, I wrote a penitential, yearning setting of this text, inspired by a conversation with Rabbi Anne Brener. Just recently, I have been studying the books and lectures of Rabbi Arthur Green. And his take on this text has led me to a very different emotional subtext for the 13 attributes. Throughout the High Holy Days, the congregation periodically recites the words of Adonai Adonai (Ex. 34:6-7). The full text in Exodus ends with the idea that God does not cleanse us, but that the harm of our wrongful and negative actions can carry forward for decades, “visiting the sin of the fathers upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generation”. But the kabbalists and rabbis of the Middle Ages created a bold liturgical innovation, and left off the last part of the sentence; so the text now implies that God does cleanse, and give us a chance for a fresh start, through a profound act of compassion. These words are at the heart of our penitential liturgy, our liturgy of spiritual rebirth and renewal. Rabbi Art Green, in his book Judaism for the world: reflections on God, life, and love (2020, p.139-40), draws upon the teaching of the Chernobyler Rebbe, who refers to Rosh Hashanah 17b from the Talmud: “If you act before Me according to this order [ie these 13 attributes], I will surely forgive you.” The message is that the more we are forgiving and compassionate, the more we will receive a sense of forgiveness and compassion from the Divine Source of the universe. This is the central teaching of High Holy Days.
With all this in mind, I realised that I wanted to compose a second setting to balance my first. In this second setting, I wanted to convey the feeling of love, compassion and safety that comes with forgiveness, and knowing that we are loved. This is not about yearning, but about receiving the Divine love that is freely given. There’s also more than one way to encourage a kind response from a parent that we have let down. Yes, we can plead and say how sorry and remorseful and bereft we are. But we can also soften the heart of a stern parent by offering our warmth and joy, and appealing to the warm and kind side of that parent. That’s what this setting is all about.
There are many different interpretations of the 13 attributes. Here are some of the more familiar ideas:
- Adonai (YHVH) – compassion before a person does wrong (even though aware s/he will do wrong)
- Adonai (YHVH) – compassion after a person has done wrong
- 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 wrongdoer time to reflect, improve and repent
- v’rav chesed – and plenteous in kindness; to those who lack merit, tipping the scales towards good
- ve’emet – and truth
- notzeir chesed la’alafim – keeping kindness unto thousands; passing benefits of one generation to the next
- nosei avon – forgiving iniquity (if repentant at intentional wrongdoing)
- vafesha – and transgression (if repentant at intention to rebel against God)
- v’chata’ah – and sin (carelessness, apathy, lack of thought, ignorance)
- v’nakeih – and pardoning (lit. cleansing)
Listen to my first, very different setting of Adonai, Adonai.