28.5. The Thirteen Attributes of God’s Manifestation (34:5-9)
(5) The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name Lord.
(6) The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,
(7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
(8) Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage,
(9) and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”
(5) The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name Lord: This passage is God’s answer to Moses’ request to be shown the Divine ways of governing the world. This passage is called Shelosh Esreh Middot, “the Thirteen Attributes” of the Almighty’s mercy. These lines of the Torah will serve later as the foundation for the Jewish prayers for forgiveness from sin.
We will offer here only one of the various options preserved by Tradition for understanding these Attributes.
(6) The Lord! the Lord!: The Tetragrammaton, the Four-Letter Ineffable Name of God, the first and the second of the Thirteen Attributes, occurs twice in succession. According to Tradition, this apparent duplication speaks of God’s mercy before a person sins, and His willingness to forgive after the same person has sinned.
A God: El, the third Attribute. He is God Who commands all the forces of the Universe, the King Who reigns over nature and over man.
Compassionate: Rachum, the fourth Attribute. God is not indifferent; He is compassionate.
And gracious: Channun, the fifth Attribute. God aids the righteous, delivering them from misfortune.
Slow to Anger: Erech apayim, the sixth Attribute. God restrains His anger and reserves judgment, in the hope that the sinner will repent.
Abounding in Kindness: Rav chesed, the seventh Attribute. God is great in performing kindness. He is kind to a much greater degree than a person deserves, even to those who are entirely without merit.
And faithfulness: Ve-emet, the eighth Attribute. Literally translated, Emet means “truth.” Although the punishment is postponed in order to give the sinner the opportunity to repent, in the end every person receives what he deserves.
(7) Extending kindness to the thousandth generation: Notzer chesed la-alafim, the ninth Attribute. The merits of ancestors extend even to the thousandth generation of their descendants.
Forgiving iniquity: No-se avon, the tenth Attribute. To a person who repents the Almighty restores the purity and strength of soul that the person previously had.
[Forgiving] transgression: ve-[No-se] Fesha, the eleventh Attribute. The Almighty forgives even open rebellion against Him.
[Forgiving] sin: Ve-[No-se] chatta’ah, the twelfth Attribute. God forgives sins committed inadvertently or out of ignorance.
Yet He does not remit all punishment: Ve-nake [lo yenake], the last of the thirteen Attributes, literally, “[In] remitting, He does not remit.” This is usually understood to mean that God remits punishment for the those who repent, but not for the unrepentant.
But visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations: The Almighty visits the sins of the parents on their descendants only when those descendants continue the bad example of their forebears, as stated in the Ten Commandments (20:5): “Visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.” Moreover, punishment is promised for only three or four generations, while kindness is extended to the thousandth generation (v. 7). This demonstrates that in Divine Providence, a single measure of mercy is many times more powerful than the same measure of judgment.
Such is the correlation of principles on which basis the Almighty rules the world. Punishment is necessary, but its power must be much less than the power of mercy.
(8) Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage: Moses bows in gratitude for the Almighty having fulfilled his request to explain to him the ways of Providence.
(9) And said, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst: Now that God has yielded to Moses’ first request, Moses mentions also the second.
Even though this is a stiffnecked people: Here Moses does not blame the people, but rather, he asks God to indulge them in their stubbornness. Only the Almighty Himself can forgive. An angel is only a messenger – he decides nothing on his own and cannot forgive anyone (“pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him,” 23:21).
Pardon: Only God can forgive. Angels (that is, the forces of nature) have no power to forgive.
Our iniquity and our sin: “Our” sin, not “their” sin. Moses does not separate himself from the people. A righteous leader will not try to absolve himself of responsibility for sins committed by the people he is charged with teaching and educating.
And take us for Your own!: And this is impossible unless God Himself goes among the people.