The Power to Change
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
We humans may say we like change, but something within us resists it. It’s part of our human nature to stick with routine and the status quo—especially when it comes to inward things. We might like to try out new experiences, new flavors and colors and places, but when it comes to changing the things closest to ourselves, we’re most likely to resist. Just ask anyone—including yourself—who’s tried to exercise more or eat less or phase out some unhealthy habit. We resist change.
As a rabbi I’ve noticed over the years this sort of resistance when we talk about one of the great themes of our current season—teshuva or repentance. I can even imagine some of my readers groaning as I bring up that term. Yes, we emphasize teshuva during the whole period leading up to Rosh Hashana, and then on Rosh Hashana and all the way through Yom Kippur. Our tradition provides lengthy prayers of remorse and confession . . . and we have to overcome inner resistance to really put our hearts into this whole practice.
Folks sometimes raise a theological objection: “I did teshuva when I accepted Yeshua. I turned away from sin and turned back to God once for all. Why do you keep bringing it up again?” I’ll keep my response really simple. Yeshua himself gave us a model daily prayer that includes these lines:
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:11–13
Daily bread, daily forgiveness, daily deliverance from evil. How much more, then should we seek forgiveness as we prepare for the Days of Awe, which our tradition pictures as a time of intense encounter with the awesome and holy God of Israel?
After the close of the last Shabbat or two before Rosh Hashana (the Shabbat of September 21 this year), Jewish custom commends reciting Selichot, prayers for forgiveness. You can find Selichot prayers in a special prayer book or online, or you can read psalms of supplication like Psalms 32 and 51. The most important text for Selichot, though, is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy from Exodus 34:6–7. Moses is speaking with Hashem (the Lord) after the incident of the golden calf. In response to Moses’ pleas, Hashem has agreed to show mercy to Israel and remain among them by his presence. Then Moses asks God to show him his glory and Hashem agrees—but it’s not a visual revelation that he gives. Instead . . .
Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in grace and truth; showing grace to the thousandth generation, forgiving offenses, crimes and sins; yet not exonerating the guilty . . .
In this ultimate moment of divine self-revelation, God’s “glory” appears as mercy and compassion. Our sages discern Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that are especially comforting as we seek forgiveness at this time of year. Let’s take a moment to consider them word by word:
1. Adonai—God is merciful before a person sins, even though he knows we’re always liable to do wrong.
2. Adonai—God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray.
3. God (El)—The title El signifies power, including the power to extend mercy even beyond the degree indicated by the twice-repeated name Adonai.
4. Merciful (rahum)—Hashem understands our human frailty. The Hebrew rahum is related to the word for womb, and speaks of the deepest sort of empathy. God understands.
5. Compassionate (v’hanun)—God shows mercy even to those who don’t deserve it—like us.
6. Slow to anger (erech apayim)—God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent. We sometimes grow impatient with the litany of confession during the High Holy Days, but it’s God who ought to be impatient with our sins—not just the list but our actual deeds—and he isn’t.
7. Rich in grace (v’rav hesed)—The Lord treats us with boundless kindness that we haven’t earned.
8. And truth (v’emet)—The Lord remains true to his word and its decrees, and finds the way to balance them with hesed, his kindness. Hesed v’emet, grace and truth, appear together numerous times throughout the Scriptures.
9. Showing grace to the thousandth generation (notzer hesed la-alafim)—God remembers the deeds of the righteous, and ultimately of the Righteous One, on behalf of their descendants.
10. Forgiving offenses (nosei avon)—Avon refers to intentional sin, which God forgives as long as the sinner repents.
11. Crimes (pesha)—Pesha is sin with malicious intent, rebellion against God. God allows repentance leading to forgiveness even for this.
12. And sins (v’hata’ah)—And God forgives sins committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.
13. Exonerating (v’nakeh)—The text says God does not exonerate the guilty, implying that he does exonerate those who truly repent.
John highlights the paired attributes of hesed v’emet in his commentary on Exodus 34: “The Torah was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah” (1:17). Commentators often see this verse as a contrast between Moses and Yeshua, between law and grace. But it’s more accurate to think of it as fulfillment. Moses gave us Torah, which speaks of grace and truth. Yeshua the Messiah embodies the very same grace and truth, living them out among us and through us. Grace and truth together have the power to change us deeply from within.
We’ll repeat the Thirteen Attributes in our prayers from the night of Selichot through Yom Kippur. They provide the essential backdrop for all our confessions of sin. Without the declaration of God’s mercy, we’d turn the liturgies of confession into a dreary, self-absorbed, and depressing mess. With it, confession leads to a deep encounter with the God of grace and truth, embodied in Messiah Yeshua.