Ambassadors of the divine

Ambassadors of the divine

Ki Tisa | Exodus 30:11-34:35

Jews have many oddities, but triskaidekaphobia — fear of the number 13: it’s why hotels have no 13th floor, why airports omit “Gate 13,” and why some offices close on Friday the 13th — is not one of them. 

Already in the second century, a midrash offered 13 principles for interpreting Torah. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides produced his 13 principles of faith. And in modern times, Menachem Mendel of Satanov (1749-1826), an admirer of Maimonides and influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s ideas on moral reform — drew up a list of 13 character traits to be pursued. The Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodeia” (“Who Knows One?”) ends with “Who knows 13?” 

It should not surprise us, therefore, to find the Talmud announcing 13 attributes of God, a topic so fascinating I’ve just edited a book on the subject (Encountering God [Jewish Lights Publishing], due out this spring).

The attributes come from this week’s parsha, where Moses hides in the cleft of a rock where God’s glory is about to pass him by. No mortal can see God’s face and live, but Moses is allowed to see God’s back side — the wake, that is, of God’s presence. What he sees are the 13 attributes, beginning with Adonai Adonai el rahum v’hanun (“God, God, merciful and gracious”) and moving on to the judgmental side of God. Jewish liturgy incorporates only the first half, however, the kind and gentle side of God that embraces human beings in forgiveness and love.

These attributes appear most prominently as bookends to the Yom Kippur service, when our sins lie clearly before us and we wonder whether God will even put up with us anymore. That matter is quickly settled by the selective perception by which the rabbis conveniently ignore the attributes of God’s judgment and focus instead on God’s mercy alone.

Yes, mercy. But not just that alone. Other words will do: love, kindness, compassion. These are the ways we Jews remember God.

And not just at synagogue. Perhaps the best instance of acknowledging God’s presence comes from Jewish wisdom on visiting the sick. The Talmud stipulates most of the rules, which then find their way into our medieval codes of Jewish law: the Tur, for example, from the 13th century.

Contrary to expectation, we are not urged primarily to pray for those who are sick. Most of the rules refer to more ordinary things: sweeping the floor, making the patient comfortable, awaiting cues from the patient as to what conversation is desirable.

The most fascinating rule is the instruction to sit at the foot of the bed — because God sits at the other end, at the patient’s head. Patients cannot see God, who sits above their sight line, but that seems to be where we come in. The patient sees us and in our eyes sees God reflected. Sitting on the bed is like sitting in our own cleft of the rock, watching God’s presence and having that presence reflected in our faces for the patient to see.

What the patient sees in our faces is the synopsis of the 13 attributes: our own love, compassion, gentleness, and kindness — characteristics we learned to take on because we are made in God’s image. 

The world becomes Godly because we make it so. We are ambassadors of the divine and to the extent that we make the 13 attributes of God’s love the mark of our presence in the world, we represent God the way God wants to be known.

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