The story of the thirteen attributes of mercy is told in the book of Exodus. Several months after the Exodus from Egypt, the nation experienced an event that occurred only once in all of history: a public revelation of God before the entire nation. This event, Ma?amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, marked the beginning of the Torah being given to the Jewish nation. The Ten Commandments were given, and then Moses ascended Mount Sinai alone and stayed there for forty days during which he received the Torah in order to bequeath it to the nation waiting below.
But it turned out that a one-time occurrence, as huge and powerful as it might be, does not have a lasting impact if it is not accompanied by a profound internal process. After the nation waited for Moses for a period of time and he was late in returning, they asked to make an idol ? a golden calf ? that served as a representative of God. This is a forbidden act, all the more so coming right after they heard the prohibition at Mount Sinai that clearly stipulated, ?You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness!? (Exodus 20, 4). But the many years of slavery and exile in Egypt left their mark on the soul of the nation, which though liberated, was still emotionally enslaved to Egyptian idolatry. The golden calf was created and the nation began celebrating around it.
Moses had been on the mountain and was preparing to descend holding the two Tablets of the Covenant etched with the ten commandments that he received from God. After he descended and saw what the nation had done, he broke the tablets, burned the calf, and punished the sinners. But the anguish Moses and the entire nation faced was severe: they understood that they had relinquished the right to be led by God. Moses began a series of prayers and pleas, culminating with a plea to God ?pray let me know Your ways? (Ibid 33, 13). Moses wished to know God?s ways of leading the world and to understand if there was any chance for the nation to return to its previous spiritual status.
And then God responded, ?I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you? (Ibid, Ibid 19). God responded to Moses? request and revealed His ways to him. And what were His ways? The thirteen attributes of mercy:
?Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin?
(Ibid 34, 6-7)
Moses thus understood that Divine revelation is full of loving kindness and compassion. When God appears, it will always be absolute benevolence.
On Yom Kippur we repeat these thirteen attributes over and over again in order to internalize this profound concept. Jewish faith identifies God with eternal and complete benevolence. Indeed, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is as its name signifies ? the day when God atones for all sins for anyone who shows an interest in being forgiven.
On this day, we recite the thirteen attributes of mercy and understand our role and our life?s goal: to cling to God?s benevolence, to forgive, to do acts of loving kindness, and to raise ourselves up to a wide, accepting, loving, and compassionate perspective.