We read from Parashat Ki Tisa during the annual cycle and on the three Festivals plus the High Holy Day season. The refrain of these Torah readings is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the repeated insistence that God treats all of us better than we deserve.
This is the God We Need
Don’t let anyone tell you the Torah has just one God in it. I know the myth is out there, masquerading as the most basic principle of Judaism. But trust me: the Torah doesn’t have just one God. I’ll prove it to you with the Shema.
First, to understand the Shema, we have to understand God’s name. It’s spelled yod-hey-vav-hey, which comes from the root the Hebrew word for “being.” That’s why I like to translate the divine name as “the Eternal.” Traditionally, when a Jew sees the word yod-hey-vav-hey in study or prayer, what we say aloud is “Adonai.” Now, the actual word “Adonai” is spelled completely differently and literally means “my lords.” But in scripture and prayer, the word “Adonai” always refers to the holy and ineffable divine name.
So, in the Shema, when we say “Adonai Eloheinu,” we are speaking a sentence with a subject and a predicate. The subject is Adonai, yod-hey-vav-hey, the Creator of the Universe. The predicate is Eloheinu, which means “our God.” Who or what is Adonai? Adonai is our God. “God,” here, is a role, while Adonai is—so to speak—a person. You might imagine a culture ascribing any number of entities to the role of God – in Judaism, our only God is Adonai, Maker of all things.
The Shema, then, is a statement about one manifestation of Adonai in our lives: as our God. But what it means for Adonai to be God is multifaceted – and here’s where I return to my surprising opening suggestion. The Torah teaches us that God is both a creator and a destroyer, that God hears our prayers wherever we speak them and also requires of our worship specific rituals and rites, that God is stable and secure but also responsive to our acts of will. The Torah contains many Gods, all of them expressions or aspects of the Eternal, whose true essence is beyond our grasp.
God in the Torah is plural. After all, the word “God” in Hebrew--Elohim—is grammatically plural. But Adonai—as the Shema reminds us—is one.
And in this week’s Torah portion, we see through Moses’ eyes the essence of the one Adonai. Here the Eternal is self-revealed, proclaiming aloud the divine name and the qualities our tradition comes to label as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
וַיַּעֲבֹר יְיָ עַל-פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא יְיָ יְיָ אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵֹא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים:
The Eternal passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed: “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not clear all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
When these attributes are revealed, the Children of Israel have just committed their most terrible sin. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, impatiently waiting for Moses to descend, they have worshiped with revelry and feasting the Golden Calf, declaring, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). Not the Shema’s “Adonai is our God” but “This is your God,” trading in the Maker of Heaven and Earth for a lump of molten rock.
And Adonai forgives them. At their moment of greatest weakness, in the face of their ultimate betrayal, the Eternal withholds punishment and commits once more to serve as their God. In this moment of mercy, Adonai’s true colors shine through, and we see the God that all of us, at one time or another, need.
With Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
Adonai, Adonai. The Eternal accepts us before we ever do anything wrong, and the Eternal accepts us every time we do something wrong.
Eil rachum v’chanun – A God merciful and gracious. Rachum – showing the sympathy generated for a child from the rechem, from its mother’s womb. And chanun – granting favor whether or not it’s been earned.
Erech apayim – Slow to anger, giving space for reflection and repentance.
V’rav chesed – Abounding in kindness, full of compassion, overflowing with steadfast love.
Ve-emet – True. The Eternal stands for what’s right, the elements of morality that constitute a sacred life.
Notzer chesed la-alafim – Extending kindness to the thousandth generation. The benefits of righteous living extend far beyond our own lifetimes, and the blessings we experience today have been bestowed as reward for acts we did not accomplish. Adonai always grants the benefit of the doubt, overwhelming humanity with undeserved good will.
Nosei avon vafesha v’chataah – Adonai will bear the burden for us when we go astray, as we inevitably will. The Eternal forgives every sin, every iniquity, every transgression we commit against heaven, clearing us in the sight of the divine.
V’nakei lo y’nakeh – While at the same time holding to account those who do wrong to one another. As our tradition teaches: In a matter that concerns you and God, V’nakei-- “God will clear,” but in a matter that concerns you and your neighbor, lo y’nakeh--“God will not clear.” While the Eternal’s mercy is endless, God expects us humans to pursue and execute justice.
This is the God all of us need. The God who knows us and understands us and accepts us for who we are. The God who created us in love and sustains us in love and receives us lovingly at every turn. The God who is Adonai Adonai.
There are times, of course, when we need Adonai to be something else. We may need God to teach us right from wrong, to inspire us with poetic beauty, to guide us in bringing freedom to the oppressed. We need God to hold our prayers and contain our fury and console us when we grieve. And sometimes we need a God who makes a good story—who splits the sea, stops the sun, and makes the world in seven days.
But more often than not, we need the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. That’s why we read this section not only this Shabbat but also on Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, and the High Holy Days. Like Moses in the cleft of the rock straining to behold the Eternal’s presence, we call out for this God of comfort, who is never fully in view. This is the God we yearn for, the is the God we depend on even through our skepticism and doubt. This is the God of hope.
And that is why we say, again and again, 100 times a day, Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu—blessed are you, Adonai, who is our only God.
 B’midbar Rabbah 11:7.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”