Shiur #2: “Hashem, Hashem”

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            In our introductory shiur, we established that underlying the recitation of the thirteen middot rachamim is the concept that the Shekhina’s presence in the world depends upon human recognition of its presence.  Hence, the presence of the Shekhina’s attribute of mercy depends upon the reading of the divine Names of mercy by the servants of God.  Chazal have transmitted to us a tradition that there are thirteen attributes of mercy, and that we should read all thirteen and thereby bring about their manifestation in the world.  It thus behooves us to begin trying to understand the precise meaning of each of these attributes.


            The first attribute – or the first divine Name – is that of Havaya (Y-H-V-H), which is known as the Shem Ha-meforash.  The verse that lists the thirteen attributes begins “Hashem, Hashem,” and the Rishonim debate the question of whether we count these two words as two attributes, a single attribute[1], or no attributes.[2]  Our discussion here will follow the position taken by Rabbenu Tam, which is the most commonly accepted view, on the basis of the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana (17b).  Tosefot present Rabbenu Tam’s view as follows:


Rabbenu Tam says that the first two Names are two attributes, as stated here [in the Gemara], “I am HaShem before one sins, having compassion on him, and I have compassion after one sins if he repents.”  “Hashem” as an attribute of mercy differs from Elokim, which refers to the attribute of justice.


            The Talmudic passage which Rabbenu Tam cites is the direct continuation of Rabbi Yochanan’s comment which we discussed in our previous installment:


This teaches that the Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur [leader of the public prayer service] and showed Moshe the prayer service.  He said to him, “Any time Israel sins, they shall perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them.  Hashem, Hashem – I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.


Tosefot add a brief explanation of the Gemara’s comment, clarifying that the actual name of Havaya signifies the attribute of mercy, as opposed to Elokim, which refers to the attribute of strict justice.


            Clearly, one could have explained the Gemara’s comment to mean that God promises to continue showing compassion even after the sin, just as He treats one compassionately before he sins.  “I am God – I have not changed.”  Rabbenu Tam, however, understood that the Gemara speaks here of two separate attributes, a reading that leaves us with two questions.  How does the divine Name of Havaya express an
”attribute of mercy,” and, secondly, why does the continued presence of this Name despite a person’s sin constitute a separate attribute, something different from its manifestation prior to sin?  If the persistence of this attribute after sin constitutes an independent attribute, then we should seemingly add a second attribute to all the other
middot, as well; thus, for example, God is rachum, “compassionate,” before sin and after sin, and so on.  Apparently, the fact that only the attribute of Havaya is repeated led Rabbenu Tam to conclude that specifically with regard to this attribute, its restoration through the performance of teshuva reflects a new, independent attribute, even if it is expressed with the same term.  One Name – but two attributes.  This is true only with regard to the Name of Havaya, and thus our understanding of the difference between the two attributes depends upon how we understand the meaning of the attribute represented by this divine Name.


            The explanation I would like to present here is based upon an article by Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l in Pachad Yitzchak (Rosh Ha-shana).


            The simple meaning of the divine Name of Havaya (literally, existence) relates to the notion that God gives existence to the entire universe; all of existence comes from Him.  This is true not only in the sense of a historical creation, but also in the sense presented by the Rambam in the beginning of Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, namely, that the very concept of existence is possible only on the basis of the will and power of God.  There is nothing besides Him; there is nothing whose existence is possible without the will of God.


            “Olam chesed yibaneh” (“The world is built through kindness” – Tehillim 89:3).  The world’s creation was an act of pure kindness.  What does this mean?  Once the world came into existence, God relates to it either with compassion or with judgment.  Once the world exists, once actions were performed and certain situations arose, there is the possibility of judgment in response to that which occurred in the world.  “Judgment” means that which a person deserves – reward or punishment.  God acts in response to a situation, and a system of justice dictates that response.  God repays each person in accordance with his conduct; a wicked man is repaid with evil.  But before the world’s creation, before any situation arose, there could be no such thing as a justified response, for there was not as yet any situation that could justify anything.  The state of absolute non-existence does not warrant or justify any response.  Hence, the world’s creation cannot be a reward or response that the world deserved due to its prior state, because it had no prior state.


            In essence, this is the Rambam’s famous question concerning the reason for the world’s creation.  He concludes that we can give no reason.  Creation, according to the Rambam, most certainly was not intended to meet any need of God, but nor could it have served to meet a need in the world that is separate from God, for such a world did not as yet exist.  Therefore – without entering into the complex, medieval discussion of this issue – we must conclude that the world was created through chesed, meaning, not as an act of justice, and not in response to anything that occurred before the act of creation.  Creation is an act of spontaneous kindness to somebody who does not deserve anything.  When somebody gives his fellow something he does not deserve, he has performed an act of kindness.  If existence is given to nothingness, if everything is given to nothing – this is the greatest act of kindness, one which in incalculable and beyond any conceivable quantification.  Mathematically, we would say that the relationship between the existent and the non-existent is infinity – infinite kindness.  “The world is built through kindness.”


            According to Rav Hutner, the Name of Havaya as an attribute of kindness relates to this notion.  God gave existence to everything, down to the very foundations.  We do not speak of a certain reality which we consider kindness as opposed to some alternative reality.  Havaya brings forth all the worlds and creates the very possibility of existence, and this existence, even before we evaluate it in any detail, is infinite kindness in relation to the alternative – the absence of existence.  “The world is built through kindness.”


            This understanding of the attribute of kindness as expressed through the Name of Havaya explains why it was chosen as the first of the thirteen attributes.  The attributes listed subsequently, those which express kindness and mercy, relate to particular situations.  They are a response; not a response of judgment and justice, but a response nonetheless.  For example, the attribute of chanun (“gracious”) is based upon the verse, “I shall hear, because I am gracious [chanun]” (Shemot 22:26).  The term chanun in this context refers to the response to a poor man’s cries; in a later installment, we will elaborate on what this means and the connection between the poor man’s cry and the attribute of chanun.  The attribute expressed by the Name of Havaya, by contrast, does not relate to any kind of response; it is a response of neither judgment nor kindness.  It does not stand in relation at all to any previous reality, and it therefore relates to every reality equally.  God brings everything into existence.  From the perspective of this attribute, there is no difference between adult and child, the wicked and the righteous, a bacterium and an elephant, or a worm and a human being.  This attribute relates to the very reality of existence, and not to any specific condition.  Every other attribute is thus based upon the attribute of Havaya, the Almighty’s will that there exist a reality outside of Himself.  God wants there to be existence.  There is no such thing as something existing more and another thing existing less; as such, everything that exists receives from the attribute of Havaya the same degree of kindness.  Later, after we understand that God lends things existence, we will ask what else He gives, and we will see that the situation is then reversed: everything in existence receives to a different extent, according to what suits it.  There are infinite different levels of power, beauty, and knowledge, and they express infinite, distinct manifestations of the attributes of kindness.  Havaya is the first attribute of kindness, because every other attribute is but a particular expression of the generic attribute of Havaya.


            Let us now proceed to the Gemara’s comment, “I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.”  We asked, is this not but a single attribute, which remains intact despite the occurrence of sin?  The answer is that indeed it is the same attribute – but this is precisely the new attribute.  The first attribute, God’s choice and will that there be existence, suffices only until the first sin.  The existence of sin contradicts and annuls the creative act of the first attribute of chesed. This is logical truth, not merely Torah truth.  Sin is by definition something that opposes the divine will.   Therefore, we may logically assert that God’s will that there be existence does not include that which runs in opposition to His will.  The very first sin already brings an end to the application of the first attribute.  Sin, by definition – and this is the critical point – runs in opposition to the divine will and thus contradicts the reality of existence.  The very fact that existence stems from the Name of Havaya, and that He brings all worlds into existence and there is no meaning to existence outside His will, necessitates that a world with sin cannot continue to exist.  Regardless of how exactly we define God’s objectives in creating the world – a subject that has of course been subject to fierce debate among thinkers throughout the generations – sin is clearly not among them.  A world that is in opposition to God’s will cannot exist by His will; this is inherently self-contradictory.  Therefore, the first attribute suffices for the world’s existence, for the building of the world through kindness, until the first sin, until twilight on that first Shabbat when Adam partook of the forbidden tree.  If God, and God's will, is the necessary basis of existence, then sin is by necessity the equivalent of non-existence. Existence with sin is essentially an existence that has no existence.


            This is what Rabbi Yochanan teaches us: “I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins.”  This is a new attribute of Havaya, which includes even a world of sin.  To put it more sharply, this is the attribute of Havaya which gives existence to everything, including sin itself.  Havaya gives existence to all things, and gives existence even to sin, as something that exists.  This is a new attribute – and this is a new creation.  After sin, a person must be created anew, with God sustaining his new existence, which is now an existence with sin.  It is hard to even imagine the natural conclusion of the second attribute.  If the first attribute is unexplainable – as we cannot understand why God desired the world’s existence – at least it does not cause utter astonishment.  But the second attribute, that of Havaya after the sin, leaves us bewildered: God wants the existence of sin, or, to put it more mildly, He wills the existence of a world in which sin is one of its components.


            The intention required during prayer for each of the attributes of compassion is simple – to call in the Name of God, “Kel rachum…”  But the precise interpretation that we discover for each Name adds an additional requirement of intention – not necessarily regarding the meaning of the words, but rather in terms of a general awareness and mindset.  The general awareness required by the thirteen attributes, as we explained in the previous shiur, relates to a willingness to serve as the “chariot” for the Shekhina’s revelation.  The first Name of Havaya requires a sense of being entirely dependent upon the divine will, as existence has no meaning other than the will of God, who, in His kindness, grants life to all living things.  But the second attribute of Havaya has particular significance and far-reaching implications, in terms of both a general religious ethic and in the particular context of the Selichot recitation.  The attribute of Havaya after sin is predicated on the fact that God wants the world even after sin, that He continues to give existence to a world that operates in opposition to His will.  A person who sins “forces” the Almighty to consent to – and moreover, to grant existence to and support – the sin that he committed.  When we reach the second Havaya in the Selichot recitation, we essentially ask the Almighty to support our sinful existence.  This means that God becomes a participant in the sin.  What gall it takes to make such a request!  Without the Almighty’s participation, no sin would ever be committed.  The sinner plans his misdeed not only on his own accord, but also while relying on God’s help.  And since a covenant has been made that the world would continue to exist even after sin, he trusts that he will succeed in invoking God’s assistance.  A person who, after sinning, prays and recites the thirteen attributes must recognize this fact – that his conduct necessitates the involvement of the absolute good in a world of sin.  “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing!”


It is quite likely that this is at least part of Rabbi Yochanan’s intent when he begins, “Had the verse not been written…”  The passage we analyze here is the direct continuation of Rabbi Yochanan’s earlier statement, which we addressed in the previous shiur: “Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written…. This teaches that the Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur…they shall perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them.  Hashem, Hashem – I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.”  God’s kindness indeed knows no bounds, and it continues uninterrupted even after sin – and this continued kindness is the most astonishing attribute of all.  This is a new attribute, a new creation, which surfaces at the time of, and as a consequence of, sin, and this attribute – the world of sin – “is built through kindness.”  Kindness builds the sin and sustains it – and you, the sinner, are responsible for the desecration of this pure goodness.  A person who sins not merely betrays God, but also, through his desire to succeed and continue existing, defiles the divine good.  There is an inherent, frightening contradiction in this regard.  Kindness, which expresses the good seeking to bestow goodness, bestows goodness even upon evil, and thereby becomes a partner in its existence.  The worshipper must accept responsibility for this before he can read the second attribute of Havaya, so that he can serve as a “chariot” for this attribute.  “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing!”


The Gemara defines this second attribute to mean “I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.”  One point must be clarified in this context, though we will not elaborate on it here, as it will accompany us throughout much of this series.  I do not believe that the second attribute of Havaya is reserved for only those who have already repented.  Firstly, God revealed this attribute after the sin of the golden calf, in Parashat Ki-Tisa, where the Torah does not describe any process of repentance on Benei Yisrael’s part.  Secondly, the concept represented by this attribute – the world’s continued existence even after sin – holds true irrespective of teshuva.  We see with our own eyes that unrepentant sinners continue to exist, despite the fact that sin brings an end to the first attribute of the world’s existence.  More generally – as we will discuss at greater length in subsequent shiurim – all the attributes of mercy apply before and until teshuva – until we reach the attribute of ve-nakei (“cleanses”), which Chazal explain as relating only to those who repent.  Rabbi Yochanan’s intent, I believe, is that the Almighty tolerates sin out of anticipationof teshuva.  “I am He after a person sins” because he will repent at some point in the future.  One might, at first glance, have questioned the rationale behind this metaphysical wonder of good sustaining evil.  Why does God's goodness extend to evil, to the negation of His will? The answer is that good sustains evil because the good believes that ultimately more good will grow from the evil, through the process of repentance.  The second attribute does not contradict the first attribute, despite the fact that the first attribute desires only goodness and the second desires even evil.  The second attribute desires evil because it knows that even within the evil there is goodness – the goodness of repentance.  Fundamentally, then, the second attribute is reserved only for those who repent, insofar as its objective and ultimate purpose is teshuva, though practically, teshuva is not a prerequisite for this attribute’s implementation.


            This anticipation of repentance affects the way a person must recite Selichot.  When reading the second attribute, he must do so with a willingness to repent; one cannot recite the second attribute while denying the possibility of teshuva.  True, as mentioned, I believe that this attribute is effective even for one who at the moment stubbornly refuses to repent, but it is simply dishonest and irrational for a worshipper to come forth and read the Name of Havaya, of compassion after sin, without, at very least, a basic, initial willingness to correct the wrong.  In my attempt to sketch the intentions and awareness with which a person must recite the thirteen attributes, I do not claim that the attributes are otherwise ineffective; rather, I demand that the person be consistent.


            Let us now summarize the meaning of the first two attributes as they affect a person’s intention as he prays.


            The first attribute of Havaya: I call in the Name of God who brings all the worlds into existence, and I request kindness because I exist; I am an object of divine kindness, and God desires the existence of all things.  I do not request compassion on account of my qualities, my conduct, the merits of my ancestors or any other specific quality, but rather solely because through my existence I fulfill the will of God, as expressed through the Name Havaya, that the world exists.  Chazal suggest an additional explanation of the Name of Havaya: “haya, hoveh ve-yiheyeh” (“He was, He is, and He will be”).  Meaning, You are He before the world existed, and You are He even when there is no world.  This essentially expresses the same notion, or, more precisely, the other side of the same coin.  God is everything, and even before creation He was whole and perfect.  As such, I do not exist in order to satisfy a certain need, but solely because in His absolute kindness He wants there to be existence, even though that existence contributes and adds nothing to Him.  A person therefore cries from the very depths of his existence, from the inner, simple point that he exists – “Hashem – of whose will I am an object.”


But the first attribute has an inherent limitation.  It responds to the individual sinner, “You exist because of My will – but you are not in accordance with My will.  You are not a reality that fulfills My will, and how, therefore, do you exist?”  avayHa

At that point, we must proceed to the second attribute.  When one cries out the second “Hashem,” out of deep-seated feelings of shame and failure, he essentially says, “Indeed, I have failed and I have not fulfilled the divine will.  Nevertheless, though I cannot understand how, You desire this, too.  Even this receptacle filled with shame and humiliation, stained with sin – even that constitutes an object of Your will.”  Of course, as mentioned, this is not possible without the prospect of teshuva, and somewhere in the background of one’s consciousness the seed of future repentance must already begin sprouting at this point.  Havaya Havaya has bestowed such abundant kindness for the sake of the world’s existence that a sinner can “stretch” the divine will and even use it to protect himself, even with the sin still in his pocket, since he still has an opportunity to clean the stained garment.


            Psychologically, there is a vast difference between the process of repentance - with complete remorse for the past and a commitment for the future, and a thorough analysis of the vicissitudes of the soul – and a flickering of the willingness and desire to repent.  Herein lies the failure of most of us, who unfortunately on Yom Kippur fail to proceed beyond the stage of willingness to perform teshuva, and do not make the effort to correct our wrongs through teshuva itself.  In any event, at the time of Selichot, we still have not reached the critical stage of rectification, but we have at least arrived at the spark of preparedness, raising the prospect of future repentance, in order to justify God’s anticipation.  This spark must be part of our calling the second Name of Havaya.


            Of course, the tension that we have drawn between the first and second attributes deserves a separate, in-depth philosophical analysis.  What is the relationship between God’s desire for goodness and His desire for the world’s existence?  How do we reconcile God’s desire for goodness with His desire that we have free choice?  These are important questions that leading thinkers of many generations have addressed, but this is not our topic here.  One who prays does not have to solve metaphysical, theological dilemmas.  For him, it suffices to understand that both divine wills exist, and they find expression in the first two attributes of mercy.  God, who is good, wants there to be human beings with free choice even if they utilize their free choice for evil – because they can, in the future, utilize it for repentance and for good.  This is an attribute of kindness, not of judgment – because judgment has no patience to wait until the future.  From the perspective of judgment and strict justice, the future does not justify the evil of the present by offering the prospect of future goodness.  Yet, even so, a person must sense a profound feeling of shame over the fact that he depends upon the second attribute to exist, that he did not succeed in actualizing the first attribute.


            In this shiur we learned two attributes, which externally are one attribute, but are two separate attributes in their deeper sense.  In the next shiur, we will discuss the attribute of “Kel,” basing ourselves on a comment found in the Hagahot Ha-Tosefot in Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana (17b).  We will deal mainly with the question of why Kel signifies an attribute of mercy, an issue to which it is worth giving some thought already at this point.


Translated by David Silverberg


[1] This view assumes that the thirteen attributes must be different from one another, and hence the same word cannot signify two distinct attributes.

[2] According to this third view, the declaration of “Hashem, Hashem” constitutes the introduction to the list of attributes, which begins with the word “Kel.”