Parshat Ki Tisa tells the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. In its aftermath Moshe pleads for forgiveness on behalf of the People and Hashem finally agrees. In so doing Hashem also teaches Moshe the 13 Midot Harachmaim, 13 attributes of God’s Mercy. We invoke this list of attributes at poignant moments of prayer- such as during Selichot, on the High Holidays and as the Torah is being taken out of the Ark on Yom Tov. Many are bothered by the seeming magical efficacy of this phrase and wonder how we can expect forgiveness from God just by saying something.
The key to understanding the power of the 13 Midot HaRachamim is alluded to in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17)
The Lord passed in front of him and called...” (Shemot 34:6). Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say [such a thing] – 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, let them perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them."
Saying the words does not suffice. We must commit to emulating God in ways depicted by the 13 Midot Harachamim. Just as God is merciful compassionate and patient with us, so too must we be merciful compassionate and patient with others. In so doing we can become worthy of forgiveness.
What about the first two attributes on the list: “Hashem, Hashem”? How can we possibly emulate these attributes?! These words seem to refer to God’s Essence, not His actions.
Rashi helps us understand
Lord, Lord: This is God's Attribute of Compassion. [It is repeated,] once for before the person sins, and once for after he sins and repents.
Our perception of and relationship to God is in constant flux. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel very close to Hashem, and sometimes He may feel distant. This can be due to things that we have done (before sin, after sin), or as a result of things that we perceive as God’s actions (in times of success, during times of challenge). The way that we perform these attributes of God is by recognizing that although our opinion of God may be constantly changing, Hashem’s love and care and concern for us is constant.
This reminds me of the story of the man who one night had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with Hashem. Scenes from his life flashed across the sky and he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him and the other to Hashem.
When the last scene of his life had flashed before him, he recalled that at the lowest and saddest times of his life there was only one set of footprints. Dismayed, he asked, "Hashem, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. I don't understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me."
Hashem replied, "My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you saw only one set of footprints...it was then that I carried you."
Such an understanding of “Hashem Hashem” in the 13 Midot Harachamim will enrich our appreciation of God in our lives and help us understand an attitude to which we must aspire.