Wednesday, 05 Oct 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet

There are passages we read today that are very powerful.   For some they are powerful because their meaning is understood.   For others it is enough that the tradition has selected them for this special day.   For others it may even be that the melody alone is enough to create a mood that fits this day.

One of the passages that is repeated several times on Yom Kippur works on all three of these levels.   Yet it is not a simple text to understand and I want to take some time to examine it.

The words are familiar, though I know at least two different melodies for them.   Adonai adonai el rahum v’hanun erech apayim v’rav hesed ve’emet notzer hesed la’alafim nosei avon vafesha v’chatta’ah v’nakeh.

The Lord, the Lord, a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, generous in love and truth, showing love to thousands, forgiving sin, wrong and failure, who pardons.

The text has a long and extraordinary history.   It first appears in the Bible in the Book of Exodus.   After the Children of Israel have worshipped the golden calf and God has threatened to abandon them, Moses prays to God.   He asks God to show him His qualities so that Moses can have a better idea about how to lead this difficult people.   God’s answer is to pass before Moses and call out a version of the words that we read today, that become known in later tradition as the thirteen attributes of God.   Later in the Bible, when God is again angry with the people, Moses argues with God to save them.   When all other arguments fail he quotes back at God a version of these words, as if to say:  ‘You have said that You are merciful and patient – here is Your chance to prove it!’   And God agrees!

The passage became so important that it is quoted many times in the Bible, by the prophets and in the Psalms.   If you look out for it you will hear a version in the Book of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon, though Jonah seems to be angry with God because He is too merciful and patient – extending this quality to Israel’s enemies the Ninevites.   What is particularly remarkable is that each time that it is quoted, different phrases are left out or amended.   Each of the prophets and psalmists tailored it to fit their particular message.   So it is no surprise that the rabbis did the same thing to the version we read.

The original passage in Exodus 34 says that God will ‘lift up’, that is, remove, three kinds of sins, but it continues ‘v’nakei lo yenakei’, God will not declare everyone innocent.   It seems to imply that first we have to admit that we have done wrong and repent and try to change.   If we do not, then we have to pay the penalty for what we have done.   But when the rabbis chose this passage, they cut off the last two words, to give it the opposite meaning to that in the Bible.   Instead of v’nakei lo yenakei, God will not hold guilty people guiltless, they stopped at the first word v’nakei, suggesting that God holds everyone guiltless.   They made God even nicer.  An extraordinary example of rabbinic ‘chutzpah’.

I want to focus on two phrases that are central to the passage.   One says that God is ‘rahum v’hanun’.   One can hear that both words are given the same vowels so that effectively they form a combined concept.   Rahum is translated as ‘merciful’ or ‘compassionate’ and seems to be derived from the word rehem that means a ‘womb’, suggesting the love a mother feels for her unborn child.   The second word hanun means ‘grace’.   An act of grace is something one does for another without expecting anything in return.   It is pure generosity, altruistic.   The two words form a kind of combined idea.   They speak of a love that is without limits or boundaries, a love without conditions, a love that overflows, a love that expects nothing in return.   That is one aspect of God’s love.

But the second phrase has a different understanding of God’s love   Again with the phrase ‘hesed ve’emet’ you can hear how they share the same vowels which suggests that they are bound to one another.   Hesed is a word that cannot be translated into English.   The King James Bible has the combined form ‘lovingkindness’ in an attempt to explain it.   Most translations speak of ‘mercy’.   Essentially it means the love that exists within a ‘covenant’.   A covenant is a contract, but while a contract is a purely legal document, a covenant includes the idea that there is a bond of love and loyalty between the two partners.

The second word is more familiar – emet, that we know as ‘truth’.   It comes from the Hebrew root amen, very familiar from our services, which means that something is ‘firm’, reliable.   The Biblical concept of ‘truth’ is not an abstract matter, but rather something based on experience, something that we can ‘trust’.

If we put these two words together they make a special combination meaning something like ‘faithful love’, loyalty.   It is the love that exists between partners who have committed themselves to one another.

In our passage the words address a basic religious question.   How can a God who is ‘invisible’, all-powerful, the Creator of everything, make a relationship with limited human beings?   The answer is with a covenant.   God, as it were, limits Himself so as to enter into a legal agreement with human beings.   But for that to happen, both partners have to pay a price.   The love inside a covenant means that there are conditions attached.   Both partners have to live up to their responsibilities to one another as in any other legally binding contract – and there are sanctions and penalties for breaking the covenant.

So if we look at this extraordinary sentence it contains a complex religious idea.   The love of God is rahum v’hanun, limitless, borderless, generous, pouring out.   Yet at the same time it is hesed ve’emet, limited, bounded, conditional, because of the covenant God makes with human beings.

That is why the prophets could attack Israel for breaking the covenant – for exploiting the poor, or for turning to other gods.   And if they did so they would be punished – with exile from the land.   But since God’s love was also rahum v’hanun, boundless, generous, there was always the chance that the relationship could be restored.   God and the Jewish people could find each other again.

On Yom Kippur we repeat this passage over and over again because we rely on it to restore our relationships with God.   This repetition is bound up with our conversation with God on this day.   In this regard it probably meant far more to earlier generations that felt themselves closer to God.   They had, also, a greater sense of sin.   They probably thought less of their individual selves and more as a collectivity, the people of Israel in exile.   Calling on God’s love in all of its aspects was the one hope that they had.

Today in our secular world we are more individualistic and self-reliant, and more sceptical as to whether such prayers make a difference.   Indeed there are some who argue that in the last century it was not the Jewish people that broke the covenant, but God, who abandoned us at our time of greatest need.   On the basis of hesed ve’emet, it is God who broke it.   So if Jews still trust God, if we still identify as Jews, if we still pray, it is because we are rahum v’hanun, ours is the love that is overflowing and unbounded.   Despite all we have experienced, we are the ones who are loyal.

We say that God is ‘ha-rahaman’, the all-merciful.   But our tradition calls the Jewish people rahmanim b’nei rahmanim, merciful people, the offspring of merciful people.

What does this passage mean for us personally?   It speaks about love.   And that is a subject that we do not discuss so often in Jewish circles.   We tend to think that Christians have the monopoly on the subject.  But here is love at the heart of our tradition on this day which is at the heart of the year.

What is the love that is rahum v’hanun, without boundaries?   It is the love we have for our children and special friends.   We rejoice in their achievements, we accept their failures and mistakes.  We always forgive them, even when we are hurt by what they do.   What is the love that is hesed ve’emet?   It is the love that exists within a marriage, a love that is supported by a covenant, of mutual responsibility, of duty, of loyalty.   Like the covenant with God there are conditions.   We set limits on our freedom for the sake of the relationship and what we build together.   In good times it is enough for rahum v’hanun, for simple love, to sustain the relationship.  In difficult times we need the strength of the covenant to hold the relationship together.    The love that is sustained over the years, that is hesed ve’emet.

Yom Kippur is about the restoration and healing of broken relationships.   Each time we repeat the verse Adonai adonai el rahum v’hanun we remind ourselves of the love that underlies all our relationships.   It tells us that however much damage we may do to one another, it is possible to repair it.   The verse is an appeal to begin anew.

Within this coming year may we conduct our lives within the parameters of hesed ve’emet, with faithfulness and loyalty, doing our duty to one another and to God.   And may we all be touched by the experience of rahum v’hanun, the love that comes from God, the love that exists amongst people, the love that always forgives, the love that asks nothing in return.

Harahaman hu yevarech otanu v’et kol asher lanu, kol yisrael v’khol yoshvei tevel.   May the All-merciful bless us and all who belong to us, all the family of Israel and all who live in this world.

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
October 2011
This D’var Torah was previously published Yom Kippur 2004

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.