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R’ei (and Elul) #2

Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li: Haro'eh Bashoshanim


The thirteen attributes of Divine mercy are particularly active during the Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes the High Holiday season. Torah study is associated with the immanence of G-d in creation, while Mitzvoh performance is associated with G-d’s transcendent aspect, a higher spiritual level. Failure to perform Mitzvos leaves a gap in the spirituality allotted to the individual from G-d’s transcendent level, but sincere repentance arouses the Divine attributes of mercy, a level that transcends the transcendent, and which can fill in the gaps. It is not possible for us to reach such a complete level of repentance without Heavenly assistance, and during Elul we pray for mercy to attain this.

IN Song of Songs, which is a metaphorical love poem between the Jews and G-d, we find the statement (6:3), “I am to my Beloved [i.e, G-d] and my Beloved is to me: He who pastures among the ‘shoshanim’ [a kind of thirteen-petaled flower, usually translated as ‘rose’ or ‘lily’].” The thirteen petals of the shoshana-flower allude to the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy, which were taught to Moshe (Moses) by G-d when Moshe prayed for forgiveness for the Jews. G-d showed Moshe how, by invoking these thirteen G-dly attributes in prayer, a worshipper would be able to arouse Heavenly mercy (see Exodus 34:6), and it is because these same thirteen attributes are especially active during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays, that the verse alludes to them in the context of “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me,” the initial letters of which Hebrew phrase spell out the name of this month.

It is necessary to understand, however, what connection the thirteen attributes of mercy have with Elul in the first place. The Heavenly mercy associated with the thirteen attributes is the quality by which G-d forgives penitents, so it is clear that they play an important role during the High Holiday season and the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Why, however, is it also necessary to have G-d’s mercy especially active during the preceding month of Elul?

To appreciate this, we must analyze, by way of introduction, the Talmudic dispute (found at the end of the first chapter of tractate Kiddushin) as to which is greater: study [of Torah] or practice [of its lifestyle by performing Mitzvos]. After some debate, the Sages reached the conclusion that study is the greater of the two, for study leads to practice. The esoteric significance of their dispute is as follows:

It is known that G-d, although Himself One and indivisible, relates to creation in a number of different ways. A human king, being one person yet relating to his subjects in a number of ways, provides a fitting analogy. On the one hand, there is an element of sovereignty, of “kingship,” that is completely divorced from the physical person of the king: the citizens are his subjects whether they are in his physical presence or not; the mere proclamation “in the name of the king” is sufficient, even in his absence, to enact laws and otherwise impose his rule over them; many citizens may never have set eyes on the king in their lives, yet this intangible aspect of kingship causes them to revere and serve him. This idea, the fame of the king, his abstract sovereignty, pervades the entire kingdom yet affects each subject differently. Citizens residing .in the capital city very naturally sense this kingship to a greater degree than do the inhabitants of the outermost provinces; a patriotic person may feel more a subject of the king than might a non-patriotic individual. On the other hand, the actual presence of the king takes in everybody equally. Wherever they live in the kingdom, or no matter how patriotic they are, everyone in the room is just as much in the presence of the king himself as anyone else during a public appearance. And, looking at it in yet a third way, neither of the abovementioned aspects of the king — his glory and fame throughout the kingdom, and his bodily presence — are anything more than manifestations of the king to the public. The king as a man — his personality, his likes and dislikes, his emotions — is usually not accessible to any but his closest intimates.

The above analogy, though necessarily inexact, may help us to understand some of the ways in which G-d — the King of Kings — relates to us. It stands to reason that since G-d created the universe and everything in it (and not only created it in the past, but continually channels His creative energy, so to speak, into each and every thing, as Jewish philosophy teaches), every single object in the universe is infused with something of that Divine creative energy, a “spark of G-d” that enables it to exist. Everything, from the simplest stone to the most complex brain, has an underlying spiritual essence that is its “life-force,” and it is this that causes the object to exist as we know it. It is obvious, though, that this G-dly vitality, which pervades every object to the core, nevertheless is infused into the various objects of creation to different degrees: a stone has much less spiritual life to it than does a plant, which has less than an animal, which in turn has less than a human being. This aspect of G-d — that He animates every object in a manner tailored to its particular nature — is comparable to the fame, the abstract sovereignty, of a king, which applies to each subject differently and is separate from the actual person of the king. (This answers a fundamental question of philosophy: if the Creator is One and indivisible, how can there be multiplicity in creation? We now understand from the analogy that there is an element of “kingship” which permeates each and every individual thing to a different extent, yet has no bearing on the oneness of the king himself; in a similar fashion, spiritually, G-d brings the universe into being. While He is, of course, the Creator of all the many things that exist, none of this implicates G-d’s actual “Self,” so to speak. Contemplation of the fact that all the grandeur of creation reflects nothing more than this abstract aspect of G-d’s sovereignty, and does not even touch upon G-d Himself, is awe-inspiring indeed.) This immanence of G-d in creation is called in Hebrew “Memaleh Kol Almin,” that element of G-dliness that “fills all realms.”

On the other hand, G-d Himself (as opposed to His sovereignty) is so exalted, so sublime over the entirety of creation, that He does not “lower” Himself to relate to individual things; to cause one object to exist as a stone, for example, and another as a human being. To G-d, Who is so sublime, there is no difference between a person and a stone after all, for He utterly transcends them both. This transcendent element of G-d over creation, called “Sovev Kol Almin,” may be compared to the manner in which the bodily presence of the king in the analogy encompasses everyone and everything equally, whether they be nobility, peasant, stone, etc. (Note well that this transcendent level of G-dliness is “transcendent” only in the sense that it is equally present throughout all creation, but not in the sense that it is not found at all within creation – for indeed, there is no place which is devoid of G-d. As in the above analogy, all of creation, from the most sublime spiritual realms to the lowest of the low, is in the “presence of the King,” so to speak, which encompasses everything equally.)

Now, the Torah is associated with Memaleh Kol Almin, the immanent aspect of G-d’s relation to the universe. This is because the Torah is the Wisdom and Will of G-d Himself relating to material existence. In the Torah we find laws pertaining to everyday life — in a certain case, something may be permitted while in a different case forbidden; in this case kosher and in that case not kosher — and the abstract and sublime Wisdom of G-d coming down and clothing itself in everyday material objects and situations is an element of G-d’s immanence. For this reason, when a Jew studies the Torah, taking it into his or her mind and making it a part of his or her own knowledge, that person draws down upon him- or herself a revelation of G-dliness, the holiness of “Memaleh Kol Almin.” Mitzvos, by contrast, are associated with “Sovev Kol Almin,” G-d’s transcendent aspect, a higher level spiritually than “Memaleh.” When a Jew performs a Mitzvah, carrying out in actual practice the Will of G-d — not merely studying about what G-d wants done but actually doing it — the holiness he or she brings into the world, and upon him- or herself in particular, is so great that it cannot become internalized within the person like Torah knowledge can.

In light of the above, we can now appreciate a deeper significance to the Talmudic dispute mentioned earlier. The opinion that. practice of Mitzvos is greater is based on the fact that Mitzvah observance draws down upon the individual the holiness of “Sovev,” a more sublime spiritual level than that associated with Torah study, “Memale.” In spite of this, though, the Rabbis reached the conclusion that Torah study is greater. This is because. it would simply be impossible for us to link up with such a high level as “Sovev” by performing physical, worldly actions, without some kind of “stepping stone,” something having aspects of both the material and the spiritual, to bridge the gap. The Torah (in which the Mitzvos are taught), the essence of which is spiritual yet which relates to material existence, as explained above, is that stepping stone that allows “Sovev” to associate with us at all. This is what the Talmud meant by the statement, “Study [of Torah, associated with ‘Memaleh’] is greater, for study leads to practice [of Mitzvos, associated with ‘Sovev’].” That is, Torah study is the “bridge” that allows the holiness of Mitzvos to be drawn down upon us to begin with, and must therefore be regarded as superior.

What has all the above got to do with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy being revealed during the month of Elul? The answer lies in the fact that the concepts of “Memaleh” and “Sovev” are of particular significance for this earthly existence. The world to come — Heaven — is a place of reward for one’s conduct in this present world, and whatever level a person has brought him- or herself to in this life determines his or her reward and spiritual level in the next life. In the next world, in other words, one’s spiritual standing is static; it remains fixed at the level determined by the person’s conduct in this life. It is only in this material world that one can progress from level to level as time goes on, improving his or her service to G-d, or (G-d forbid) the opposite. This spiritual fluidity in the material world is only possible because of Mitzvah performance: Mitzvah observance, as explained above, draws into this world the G-dly revelation of “Sovev,” which, being transcendent, is not limited to any individual level. It is for this very reason that the soul comes into the world to begin with: to draw the holiness of Sovev into the world through Mitzvah observance, thereby elevating oneself and the entire universe from one spiritual level to the next.

Indeed, each person has a certain amount of this holiness to draw into the world, a quota set in accordance with his or her capacity. That is one reason that transgressing a Mitzvah (G-d forbid) is such a terrible thing — even though G-d may forgive the transgressor, there is still something missing from the amount of holiness that he or she was supposed to bring into the world through Mitzvah observance. Even the transcendent level of Sovev, which ordinarily makes it possible to go from one level to another, cannot fill in the gap, for it is from Sovev itself that the holiness is missing!

Out of His unbounded love for us, however, G-d makes it possible, not only to be forgiven, but to “fill in the gaps” as well. This is accomplished through the thirteen attributes of mercy, which are on a much higher level than either Memaleh or Sovev: they are united with G-d Himself, like the personality of the king in the analogy. Since this is such a sublime spiritual level, transcending even Sovev, it can make up for what is missing in Sovev.

It is appropriate that the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy are revealed, not only during the Ten Days of Repentance, when they are instrumental in bringing G-d’s merciful forgiveness upon the Jews, but during the month of Elul as well. In order for one to merit being forgiven, and more than that, that any “gaps” in one’s spiritual quota should be miraculously repaired, one must succeed in achieving such a sincere and heartfelt level of repentance that G-d is moved, as it were, to a “heartfelt” response in kind, arousing His thirteen attributes of mercy in dealing with that individual. Unfortunately, it may be difficult for a person to bring him- or herself to such a genuine level of repentance. For this reason, G-d also makes the thirteen attributes of mercy accessible to us during Elul, which is a month-long period of preparation for the High Holiday season to follow. Mindful of the G-dly mercy manifest during this month, we should spend this time praying for the merciful Heavenly assistance that will bring our heartfelt repentance during the upcoming Ten Days of Repentance to the level at which it will indeed arouse the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy, so that G-d not only forgives us but even fills in our gaps.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin