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Notes from an AMS talk at Kol Nefesh Masorti

Approaches to וְהוּא רַחוּם יְכַפֵּר עָוֹן וְלֹא יַשְׁחִית

Jaclyn Chernett

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. If you are reading this post on Facebook, it will not lay out correctly; click on "View original post" at the bottom to view the original on my LiveJournal blog.]

[This is extracted from a longer talk by R. Chaim Weiner and Jaclyn Chernett on the subject of Talmud Torah. וְהוּא רַחוּם is a two-sentence paragraph read right at the start of מַעֲרִיב, immediately before בָּרְכוּ (the call to prayer). It's not part of the core service, but as R. Weiner points out, often the most interesting things in the service are the things which are not part of the Talmudically-mandated prayer service, but the things at the margins, which people down the ages felt had to be put into the service.]

G-d, being merciful, forgives iniquity and does not destroy.* Repeatedly He restrains His anger, and does not stir up all His wrath. Lord, save; may the King answer us when we call.† וְהוּא רַחוּם יְכַפֵּר עָוֹן וְלֹא יַשְׁחִית׃ וְהִרְבָּה לְהָשִׁיב אַפּוֹ וְלֹא יָעִיר כָּל חַמָתוֹ׃ ה׳ הוֹשִׁיעָה הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם־קָרְאֵנוּ׃

* This comes from Psalm 78, one of the longest Psalms. This talks about generations of the Israelites who rebelled against G-d. Then in the middle, in v. 38, it says even so, after all they've done, G-d, being merciful, forgives them. There is a compassionate aspect to their [lacuna]

† This is a cry to G-d; Psalms 20:10. In old times, the chazzan would say—or sing—the first line, and the people would cry out the refrain, "Save us, G-d!"

This is before us before we even start the service with בָּרְכוּ, the call to prayer.

So now, from the written Torah to the Oral.

Mishna Makkos 3:10-14 deals with scourging, punishing by flogging men and women who have transgressed various מִצְוֹת that they be given thirty-nine stripes, as a number which must be divisible by three. It was customary to do this in the evening after the sins of the day. Each thirteen stripes וְהוּא רַחוּם was recited because it has thirteen words. And the relevance of the thirteen words is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. (Three signifies the number of people in a בֵּית דִין.)

Midrash Tanchuma (Pinchas 12) says no one in Jerusalem ever went to sleep at night with unexpiated sins on their hands. As sacrifice atones for sin and there was no evening offering, therefore there there had been no opportunity for atonement for sins in the evening. So וְהוּא רַחוּם, according to David Abudarham (C14 Spain liturgist) is there so that at least we can mention atonement, acknowledging that G-d forgives, even without the offering.

In the Askhenazi ritual, וְהוּא רַחוּם is not said on Shabbos and Festivals because a) stripes weren't administered on those days, b) it is supplicatory and will cause sadness and c) we don't encourage Divine judgement on Shabbos (Zohar). Sephardi ritual also dropped it on Shabbos and Festivals eventually, possibly because of the Zohar.

Tola'as Yaakov is a commentary on the Siddur by R. Meir ibn Gabbai (b. c.1480 Spain, then moved to Turkey). He says we begin Maariv with וְהוּא רַחוּם "to seek mercy for the souls that suffer judgement every night by three bands of destructive angels. Their names are מַשְׁחִית (Destruction), אַף (Anger) and חֶמָה (Wrath)." It also contains the assurance that G-d will not allow מַשְׁחִית to destroy; He will restrain אַפוֹ and will not awaken his חֶמָה. The verse has thirteen words synonymous with ה׳ ה׳ אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנוּן (Ex. 34:6-7), which has one for each of G-d's attributes of Mercy.

Modern scholarship: Marc Brettler, Professor of Bible, Brandeis, says וְהוּא רַחוּם emphasises God's continued acts of deliverance, despite Israel's repeated sins. It serves to negate G-d's irrational anger as found elsewhere in the Bible, prompting G-d, instead, to remember G-d's "nice" side. [This is based on a literal reading in the context of its place in Psalm 78.]

Ellen Frankel, JPS Editor-in-Chief, says וְהוּא רַחוּם is a meditation before בָּרְכוּ where G-d is merciful. This means restraint of anger. Presumably it is our iniquity that G-d forgives. It could have been worse so before we ask G-d to save us when we call, we acknowledge that we may be responsible for harsh happenings. So before we call our community to worship G-d, we acknowledge that it is this quality of self-control, of restrained anger, that draws us near to G-d to allow us to unveil our shortcomings without fear of reprisal or excessive rebuke.

A commentary in a modern Chassidic Siddur says וְהוּא רַחוּם consists of thirteen words, corresponding with the thirteen מִדוֹת or attributes in ה׳ ה׳ אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנוּן. In this instance, we are using thirteen Attributes of Mercy to inject leniency and compassion on the people who are literally serving time in Hell.

So what about us? When we are reading a text, we must go back to the sources and work out what is meant by it. But we have to go further: it doesn't have enough meaning until we have engaged in it ourselves. Because it's the language of the spirit; and how are we to engage in this unless we engage in the passion of the spirit?

We don't just read the text; we read the text through the lens of how people [have read it over the ages]. But we have to invest ourselves [in the text too.] Lawrence Hoffmann, of Hebrew Union College, wrote:

To be a Jewish reader is to join the ranks of the millions of readers who came before us, leaving their comments in the margins, the way animals leave tracks in the woods. Go deep into the forest, and you will come across deer runs, for example: paths to water sources, carved out by hundreds of thousands of deer over time. The deer do not just inhabit the forest; they are part of the forest. They change the forest's contours as they live there, just as the forest changes them by offering shelter, food and water. There is no virgin forest, really; it's an ecosystem, a balance between the vegetation and the animals who live there.

So too there are no virgin texts. They too are ecosystems, sustaining millions of readers over time. When we read our classic texts, we tread the paths of pious readers in search of spiritual nourishment.

Historical commentaries spoke to the people of that time. Nowadays we're looking for what speaks to us in our age.

We characterise G-d in terms of human language because that's how we express ourselves; and also through music*, because that's what we do.

* The language of the soul is music. We have נוּסַח to carry the meaning of the texts to [us]. The נוּסַח used here is mainly East European; and וְהוּא רַחוּם is sung in the אַהֲבָה רַבָּה mode, conveying a sense of winding down and nightfall, of G-d's eternal love and peace.

We certainly don't believe in flogging any more; many of us do not believe in punishment in Hell. But we still do beat ourselves up for our misdemeanours, and suffer illness and bereavement and [hardships]; and we do make mistakes all the time, and we do need forgiveness, and mercy and compassion. So we talk about these because these are qualities that are G-dlike.

What we can control is human behaviour, uniquely and specifically our own. As creations בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, we aim to the highest ideals of G-dlikeness.

The speaker sees וְהוּא רַחוּם as follows: We want G-d to be compassionate and merciful to us, as we prepare for the dark of the night and sleep. We want to emulate that compassion towards our fellow human beings; but first we have to be compassionate towards ourselves, for our mistakes of the day.

Rav Kook said that teshuva presents the Jew with a world of hope. Man is not doomed to despair. Teshuva presents him with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. וְהוּא רַחוּם opens that hope for him every night.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-03-06 12:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zsero.livejournal.com
Mishna Makkos 3:10-14 deals with scourging, punishing by flaying

Flogging!

(Cue the old joke about the fellow who insists he wants to be castrated, and only after the operation remembers that the word he wanted was "circumcised".)

Date: 2009-03-06 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
*ahem* Just checking if anyone's reading this. ;^)

(Thanks for the correction.)

Date: 2009-03-08 07:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Was flogging an alternative to real death penalties like stoning? I don't really like that idea. Jews always had some dispute and disagreements. It would mean they have to flog each other all the time.

Date: 2009-03-08 08:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
No, flogging was a lesser form of punishment for lesser crimes.

I don't really like that idea. Jews always had some dispute and disagreements. It would mean they have to flog each other all the time.

Not at all, any more than that all crimes in the UK result in imprisonment: only serious crimes do; lesser crimes result in fines, restraint orders or community service.

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