It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other. I have learned about myself. I hope you feel the same.
This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent. Specifically, how to be a better one.
The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children. The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language. And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.
The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship: that between God and human beings. God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already. From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations. That is what you spoke about, Solly.
God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God. Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.
As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron. Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf. God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses. Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites. On a role, Moses goes for it. “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God. “Please show me your glory.”
What is he asking for? Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents. He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.
“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God. “But I’ll tell you what. Stand in the cleft of the rock. I’ll cover you with My hand. Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You. After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”
Face, hands, back. God sounds a lot like a person.
Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way. “Were it not written, it could not have been said.” But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further. The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader. God then recites the Thirteen Attributes. They might sound familiar:
Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.
Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion
Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness
Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations
Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin
v’nakeh – and pardoning
Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene: “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer. I will forgive them immediately.”
These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness. Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words. They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness. It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.
The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context. Here is its continuation. You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.” But the following words are:
lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”
poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.
This changes things. While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations. This is a covenantal text. It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel. Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared. God sticks to the covenant. There is both compassion and justice. Carrot and stick.
But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick. They cherry pick only those attributes that they want. What gives them the right?
Well, they are not the first. The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently. The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…” (Joel 2:13) No punishment mentioned.
The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning. “This is exactly what I said would happen. I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’ (Jonah 4:2)” Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel. Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully. He wants the Ninevites to be punished.
Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly. It is not sloppy editing. These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God. They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections. They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.
When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company. Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.
The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy. Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark. Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys: we want our God to give us a second chance. Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.
Human beings have a need to be seen. When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me. Look at me.” Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists. We all want to be seen. Most of all, I think, by our parents. As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles. That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment. What if they see my imperfections and reject me?
When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.
I think children want the same thing from their parents. A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense. They want to create distance—to differentiate from us. But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong. These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.
I am going to read the 13 Attributes again. Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities. Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.
The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.
Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.
One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.
You are a person with strong opinions and convictions. I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.
That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier. The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point. And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.
That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate. It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.
As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.
Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life. The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false. It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it. By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.
As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.
Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community. Keep at it.