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Shiur #10: Ve-nakei

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The thirteenth and concluding divine attribute of mercy is that of ve-nakei (literally, “and cleanses”).


            In fact, according to the plain, “peshat” reading of the text, there is no attribute called “ve-nakei.”  Rather, after describing God as “nosei avon va-fesha ve-chata’a” (“forgives iniquity, transgression and sin”), the Torah then proceeds to the attribute of “ve-nakei lo yenakeh.”  According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, the phrase, “nakei lo yenakeh” is the precise opposite of “nakei yenakeh” – “He shall surely cleanse.”  Biblical Hebrew occasionally uses the literary form of double verbs.  The doubling of the verb serves to express emphasis or an extreme manifestation of that verb.  Examples include “sakol yisakeil” (“he shall surely be stoned” – Shemot 19:13), “yaro yiyareh” (“he shall surely be shot” – ibid.) and “ha’aneik ta’anik” (“you shall surely grant” – Devarim 15:14).  In all these instances, according to the plain meaning of the text, the doubling of the verb serves as emphasis.  The negation of a double verb comes in the form of “[verb] lo [verb],” and means that the action will assuredly not occur.  Accordingly, the phrase “ve-nakeh lo yenakeh” means that despite everything that has been said until now since the beginning of the Thirteen Attributes, nevertheless, God will certainly not cleanse the sinner entirely.  If we read this verse according to the plain interpretation, then this phrase does not introduce another attribute of mercy, but rather, to the contrary, qualifies the previous attributes.  Despite the divine attributes of mercy, the attribute of justice will demand retribution, and the sin will not be erased entirely.  Essentially, this is the concept that we encountered in the Talmud Yerushalmi while studying the attribute of erekh apayim: “ma’arikh af ve-gavi dilei” (“He delays anger, and then collects that which His”).  According to the plain reading, then, we have only twelve attributes of mercy, as the thirteenth is actually an attribute of justice.


            However, when we recite the attributes in the framework of the Selichot service, we stop after the word ve-nakei.  This not only shortens the verse, but also reverses the meaning of this word.  We transform “ve-nakei lo yenakeh” – which means that God will assuredly not cleanse the sin entirely – into “ve-nakei” – God’s willingness to cleanse the sin.  The obvious question arises, how did Chazal create an attribute in direct opposition to what is written in the Torah?  This is not only an exegetical-textual question, but also a halakhic one.  There is a rule in Halakha that “we do not break any verse that Moshe did not break” (Berakhot 12b, Ta’anit 27b).  Certainly, then, we may read a verse in a manner that directly contradicts its true meaning!


            The answer to this question – which also holds the key to understanding this attribute – is that the content of this verse is revealed twice in the Torah.


            The first source of the Thirteen Attributes is the verses in Parashat Ki-Tisa, and thus constitutes part of the revelation of the Torah, which was given at Mount Sinai.  That verse indeed presents only twelve attributes of mercy, which were bound by a strict limitation – “ve-nakei lo yenakeh.”  The attributes of mercy can in no way erase the sin entirely.  But we find another revelation of the attributes of mercy, one which occurred not in the public, overt revelation of God to Benei Yisrael, but rather in the nikrat ha-tzur (“crevice of the rock”), privately and in hiding, as a secret.  When God revealed the attributes to Moshe in the nikrat ha-tzur, He revealed an additional attribute – the thirteenth attribute.  This attribute is contradicted and outright denied in the Torah.  But in this revelation at the nikrat ha-tzur, God did not speak to Moshe “face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow,” but rather “wrapped Himself like a sheli’ach tzibur,” covering His face and head, as it were, and called out the attributes.  When we recite Selichot, we do not cite a verse from the Torah, but rather reenact the vision revealed to Moshe, regarding which God said to Moshe, “They shall perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them.”  “This service” – meaning, from “Hashem, Hashem” through and including “ve-nakei.”  It is indeed forbidden to cite verses in a distorted form; here, however, in the Selichot service, we do not quote a verse from the Torah given at Sinai.  We rather recreate the encounter at the nikrat ha-tzur.


            Chazal noted the contradiction surrounding the attribute of ve-nakei:


A berayta states: Rabbi Elazar says: It cannot say “ve-nakei,” because it already says, “lo yenakeh”; but it cannot say “lo yenakeh,” because it already says, “nakei.”  How is this possible?  He cleanses for those who repent, and does not cleanse for those who do not repent. (Yoma 86a)


In light of what we have seen, this contradiction should be understood not as arising from two different verses, or even between two different segments of a verse, but rather from two different revelations of the same verse – the revelation at Sinai and the revelation at the nikrat ha-tzur.  This is a contradiction between two different attributes of the Almighty.  The Gemara resolves this contradiction by pointing to repentance as the determining factor: “He cleanses for those who repent, and does not cleanse for those who do not repent.”  Repentance is the factor that reveals the merciful attribute of ve-nakei from amidst the strict attribute of nakei lo yenakeh.


            Until this point, I have emphasized in this series that the divine attributes of mercy are not predicated upon teshuva.  Repentance has, until now, been necessary only as a future goal, as a guarantee.  The attributes of mercy serve to allow existence in the current condition – a sinner who has yet to repent – so that teshuva can eventually be achieved.  For example, the attribute of erekh apayim delays the punishment in the hope that by the time it is ready to surface, the individual will have already performed teshuva.  The Thirteen Attributes are the attributes which allow the world to exist and creation to continue despite the occurrence of sin.  This fundamental concept – that the world exists through the divine attributes of mercy – appears in Avraham’s appeal to God that He spare the condemned city of Sedom:


Rabbi Levy said: “Shall the Judge of the earth not perform justice?” (Bereishit 18:25).  If You want a world, then there can not be judgment; and if You want judgment, then there can not be a world. (Bereishit Rabba 39)


The attribute of justice cannot sustain the world.  Therefore, if God indeed wants the world to exist, He must include the attributes of mercy.  The entire objective is to allow for existence.  Since in the world there is a reality of sins and sinners, the attributes of mercy are necessary to allow for their continued existence.  God, who is good, desires a perfect world, and the world cannot exist outside the divine will.  Therefore, the attributes come to expand the divine will to include even our corrupted world.  At first glance, it would seem that this purpose requires only the first twelve attributes.  There is no need for “cleansing,” because the attributes allow the existence of sin itself; there is thus no existential need for its elimination.  The world can continue to exist even with its filth.  Of course, the complete atonement of sin is something dear and precious, and the Torah outlines the procedure for attaining atonement – the Yom Kippur service, the sacrifices, and so on.  But this is not an existential need.  It is rather part of the covenant between God and Benei Yisrael; kapara (atonement) is a gift God grants to His people.  But the Thirteen Attributes describe how the Almighty relates to the world at large.  They continue the existence of creation, and guarantee a person continued life in which to exercise his free will.  If so, then their entire purpose is to allow people the possibility of sinning, just as they have the possibility of performing goodness, and to live with their sins and ultimately bear the responsibility.  Therefore, God is rachum, chanun, erekh apayim, rav chesed ve-emet – but “nakei lo yenakeh,” He does not cleanse sins entirely.


            However, in the final attribute, the attribute of ve-nakei, an additional existential need is revealed.  The basis of this attribute is the assertion that it does not suffice to accept a world that includes sin – not even with the expectation of future perfection.  The person demands also “cleansing” – because for him, this is an existential need.  Existence with sin, an existence in which I breathe, walk, eat and live, but find myself distant from God, without friendship, without dialogue – this is not existence at all.  The twelve attributes guaranteed existence, but an existence of sin, of alienation and distance.  This is logically possible, according to the rationale that we have explained in discussing the previous attributes.  But the individual is still not satisfied.  In his eyes, this is intolerable.  An existence far from the Almighty is not existence at all.  Sin, even if it does not kill the violator, and even if it does not affect his spiritual capabilities, nevertheless separates him from God.  There cannot be any existential merging between God and sin.  God says to the person, “Continue existing, I will ensure that you can continue moving forward.”  As God said to Moshe after the sin of the calf, “And so, go lead the nation to where I told you – behold, my angel will walk before you.  And on the day of My accounting, I shall make an accounting of their sin for them” (Shemot 32:34).  In other words, you can go, and My angel will go with you – but not Me.  “For I shall not go up [to the Land] in your midst” (33:3).  God warns that “on the day of My accounting, I shall make an accounting” – the sin is not completely cleansed.  Moshe then responds, “If Your countenance does not go, do not bring us up [to the Land] from here” (33:15).  What a peculiar exchange!  God tells Moshe that he can proceed to Eretz Yisrael, that the plan remains in place, but Moshe declines: “If Your countenance does not go, do not bring us up from here.”  If there is no connection to God, then there is no reason to continue existing.  There is no life plan that does not include God’s “countenance.”


            If so, why is this principle concealed, hidden, and not revealed explicitly in the Torah?  The answer is found in Chazal’s interpretation.  God cleanses for those who repent, but not to those who do not.  This attribute does not exist without teshuva.  I did not say that this attribute does not work without teshuva, but rather than it does not exist – at all – without teshuva.  Before a person repents, there is no need – existentially speaking – for the cleansing of sin.  The Torah testifies that a person can exist, through the Almighty’s kindness, with his sin.  So long as the request is merely for basic existence, there is no need for the attribute of ve-nakei.  The attributes of mercy address an existential need, of the creation of heaven and earth.  Only when a person attempts to draw close to God and feels that he cannot exist at a distance is it revealed that this is indeed the case – man indeed cannot live distant from God.  Only then must the divine attribute of mercy provide a solution for this existential problem.  Thus, repentance is not a precondition for the attribute of ve-nakei, but rather reveals it and brings it to the level of reality.  In the world of teshuva, there can be neither justice nor mercy without the cleansing of sin.


            The claim that there is no existence without closeness to God is not axiomatic truth.  To the contrary, the first twelve attributes will guarantee this kind of existence.  But teshuva changes reality, and in the new reality there arises the need for an additional attribute to allow for existence.  The reason for this is that closeness cannot occur unilaterally.  In the inanimate world, if I bring one object near another without moving the second, they become close to one another.  The gap between them can be narrowed by moving one without the other.  Among human beings, however, when dealing with the closeness of friendship and partnership, the gap cannot be closed by one party drawing near without a corresponding gesture made by the other.  Therefore, leaving aside the question of which side must start this process[1], it must occur bilaterally, with both sides drawing closer to one another.  So long as there is no awakening on Am Yisrael’s part, there is no meaning to God’s drawing closer.  Therefore, in the Torah, in the revelation that the Almighty “forced on Israel like a tank,” when He descended to the people upon Mount Sinai without any initiative on their part to draw near, the element of “cleansing” is absent from the attributes that define God’s governance of the earth.  But Benei Yisrael’s initiative of teshuva, Moshe’s demand for God’s closeness, introduces and reveals a new existential need – closeness.  Until now, we managed fine with existence in accordance with God’s will; but now we need existence with God’s love.  The cleansing, correcting the situation rather than simply preserving it, is not part of God’s special covenant with Israel, and is instead part of His covenant for the world’s existence – but this covenant is necessary only for those who repent.  Repentance changes, first and foremost, the sinner himself, the conditions of his existence.  It causes him to decide that existing by God’s will does not suffice.  “If Your countenance does not go, do not bring us up from here.”  Then, and only then, a “hidden” attribute emerges from amidst “nakei lo yenakeh,” one which exists only in the new world, in the world of teshuva – the attribute of ve-nakei.  This demands a new revelation – the revelation of the nikrat ha-tzur.  When a person is awakened to teshuva and understands that he cannot live in a world where God’s hand does not guide him and protect him, in a world where he does not hear the Almighty’s whispers, and where he does not feel the light of God’s countenance upon his face – his actions then create the revelation of the Shekhina and the revelation of a new attribute.


            Of course, there is nothing novel in the concept of man’s actions serving as the basis for a new divine revelation.  This is the basic notion underlying the Selichot, as we discussed in the first shiur in this series.  What is new here is that man’s actions – not merely invoking the attributes, but rather genuine teshuva – introduce the attribute, rather than simply giving it a basis.  If one is not awakened to draw close to the Almighty and nevertheless calls out the attribute of ve-nakei, this attribute will not exist for him, despite the covenant God made with the Thirteen Attributes, and despite the concept which we discussed of God’s revelation in response to the person’s calling that attribute.  This attribute simply cannot exist in the world of such a person.  There must first be an existential need for divine closeness, and only then will the attribute of ve-nakei emerge from the fog of the nikrat ha-tzurTeshuva is not a precondition for kindness; it rather creates a new world, a world of repentance, a world in which a new attribute of kindness is an existential necessity and is thus revealed in response to the individual’s teshuva.


            This attribute guarantees not only survival, but closeness; not simply existence with the sin, but rather its elimination, cleansing and atonement.  Therefore, allow me – for the last time – to suggest yet another explanation for the Almighty’s “wrapping Himself like a sheli’ach tzibur.”  The thirteenth attribute is based upon closeness and togetherness.  When we feel a yearning that can find no rest, the feeling that without His closeness there can be no life at all, then the Almighty does not stand opposite us, at a distance, granting us life, but rather lives among us.  “Like a hind cries at the streams of water, so does my soul cry for You, O God!” (Tehilim 42:2).  When divine closeness becomes like water for a person suffering from thirst, and life with sin feels like strangulation, when one senses that he cannot live without God, then a covenant is made with the thirteenth attribute and guarantees that God will indeed draw close by cleansing the sin.


            But since we still deal here with an existential attribute, this is not the end of the process.  “Cleansing” marks but the preliminary stage in the process of atonement and purification.  This cleansing allows for divine closeness.  The world of repentance, the world of closeness, is now made possible.  God promises more than that – the process of Yom Kippur, the day on which He grants atonement and purification.  Purification demands more than simply feeling the need for closeness; it demands immersing oneself in the waters of renewal.  The basic existence of closeness is achieved through the completion of the Thirteen Attributes.  But God’s covenant with Israel gives more than just existence; it gives purification before God.  After the attribute of ve-nakei granted to those who repent, a Jew must continue forward in order to be a bearer of the covenant, in order to be a builder of sanctity.  On the day that is spent in its entirety “lifnei Hashem” (“before the Lord”), let us work toward perfection, repent in complete teshuva, and be privileged to greet our King in complete purity.


[1] Chazal famously comment that Kenesset Yisrael say, “Bring us back to You, and we shall return,” while the Almighty says, “Return to Me, and I shall then return to you.”  In any case, though, the unilateral movement of one without the other does not suffice; “Bring us back to You” must be followed by “and we shall return.”