Please excuse me, but this post will be rather short.
As the month of Elul wanes, we find ourselves closer to Rosh Hashanah, The Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur. The month of Elul is spent in preparation to stand before G-d in judgement on Yom Kippur. Many Jews use this month for reflection and introspection. Not so much “soul searching” (as we know where the soul is) but rather taking an honest accounting of ourselves, our thoughts, and our actions during the past year. An important step in this process of preparation takes place this Saturday night at midnight when Jews observe Selichot. During the Selichot (which comes from the Hebrew word for “pardon”) service, we recite prayers of repentance, in particular the 13 Attributes of Mercy.
The 13 Attributes of Mercy is derived from the episode of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32:10), two verses in particular:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Shemot 34:6-7).
According to the midrash, G-d taught Moses the prayer and instructed him to teach it to the Israelites, who were to recite the prayer before asking for forgiveness over the whole Golden Calf incident.
The question with this prayer, as is the case with most prayers, is what is its purpose. On one hand, reminding G-d that G-d is merciful is a sound strategy before asking for forgiveness of transgressions. But does G-d need reminding of G-d’s mercy? And, it is G-d G-dself who instructs us to say this prayer. On the other hand, if anyone needs reminding that G-d is merciful, it is someone preparing to stand before G-d in Judgement.
Again, the question is “why”. Why does G-d want us to know that G-d is merciful? Rashi provides the answer:
Obeying from love is better than to obey from fear.
Teshuva requires a recognition of transgression, a vow to stop performing the transgression, and, most importantly, a pledge to not perform the transgression again. Rashi instructs us that a pledge made from love rather than from fear is more likely to be upheld. In other words, teshuva works best when performed in order to regain G-d’s love instead of out of fear of G-d’s punishment. Reciting The 13 Attribute of Mercy before we confess our transgressions teaches us that judgement in the absence of mercy is not justice: Without Mercy there is no Justice.
Oh mercy, mercy me.