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Yom Kippur 5778

Human Existence with the Divine Attribute of Mercy
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
 
Yom Kippur, which comes out this year on Friday night until Saturday night, is a day whose name depicts its essence.  “Kippur” means atonement.  This is the day when God atones for people’s sins, or as it says in the Torah:
For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.
(Vayikra 16, 30)

If there is a set day every year on which God effects atonement for people’s sins, we can understand that the fact that people sin and do not always act as they should does not come as a surprise.  This reality is undeniable and is also not coincidental.  Thousands of years ago, on the day the Temple was dedicated, King Solomon expressed this idea without mincing words, “…for (there is) no man who does not sin” (Kings 1 8, 46).
How are we to deal with this fact?  The Hebrew word for sin is “chet”, the same word used when you miss a target. There is no doubt that sinning is missing a goal and is not desirable.  But – is it accidental? In other words, couldn’t God have created a slightly better version of man, one who would not sin at all?
 A prominent Jewish scholar who dealt with this topic extensively was the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a kabbalist, poet, and philosopher, Italy 1707 – Israel 1747).  His profound teachings touch at the heart of the human experience and man’s standing before his God.  He compares God’s relationship with man to that of a mother for her son which is composed of three succeeding stages: “chesed” (benevolence), “din” (judgement), and “rachamim” (mercy).
When a baby is born, his mother takes care of him with complete benevolence.  She has no expectations of any compensation or even a return of her own devotion.  She gives of herself entirely and lovingly.  Shortly afterwards, when the baby is a bit older, the relationship takes on a bit more reciprocity.  She expects a smile, some sort of reaction.  When he is even older, she expects him to be a good student, a child who brings his family “nachat”, satisfaction.  She now treats him not only benevolently, but with a certain level of judgement.  She expects “compensation” starting with gratitude, appreciation, and meeting her expectations.  This is human nature.  Psychologists say that if a mother would continue bestowing goodness on the child with no expectations of reciprocity, the child’s development would be harmed and he would become essentially a grown child.
As the child grows, if reciprocity is not maintained – a relatively common phenomenon – we might expect the mother to stop providing for her child since her relationship with him is supposedly based on this reciprocity.  If the reciprocity was total, then parent-child relationships would look like those between any person and his bank manager – you get what you deserve, you don’t get what you don’t deserve.  But a parent-child relationship is different.  It exists on its own merit.  It is unconditional, without a set goal toward which both sides strive.  The relationship itself is the goal.  This is the attribute of mercy – the third stage.
The creation of man is total “chesed”, benevolence, giving with no reciprocity.  Man is created and then sent off on a long journey that does have expectations of reciprocity: God provides for man and man is expected to take the straight and correct path.  This is the attribute of “din”, of judgement.  If we would stop here, our relationship with God would look like our relationship with our bank manager, and that would not end well…
God created man as a creature who sins.  This is not by mistake; not a mishap.  God expects us to understand that the Divine attribute of judgement is not how He conducts the world.  The Divine attribute of mercy, stronger than reciprocity, is the one that expresses the real relationship between God and man. God wants to provide for us without limit, unconditionally, and therefore “…for (there is) no man who does not sin”.  We can never stand before God confidently and claim “I deserve this.” Therefore, we can never mistakenly think that God conducts the world according to the attribute of judgement.
This of course does not make sin permissible.  On the contrary.  This point of view strengthens our faith and trust in God and His goodness and empowers us with the desire not to sin.
Our sages conveyed this concept concisely.  “At first God meant to create the world with only the attribute of judgement, He saw that the world cannot exist this way, so He added the attribute of mercy.” What is the meaning of “He saw that the world cannot exist this way”? Could it be that God was mistaken, that He thought the world could exist and ultimately discovered that it couldn’t? That is a ridiculous thing to say.
“The world cannot exist on the basis of the attribute of judgement”. The world does not attain its goals when man believes that God is conducting Himself wholly on the basis of the attribute of judgement.  Yom Kippur is a day when we adjust our awareness and sharpen our consciousness of the fact that it is the Divine attribute of mercy that conducts the world.    

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