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This Shabbat is known as the Sukkot Intermediate Shabbat. The Torah has already been read to the end, but we don’t turn it back and restart until the 8th day of Sukkot, which is called Sh’mini Atzeret. It is also known by another name, Simchat Torah, which means Joy of Torah.
This reading takes place right after the sin of the Golden Calf has occurred. God told Moses that he would no longer dwell with this people because they are stiff-necked and rebellious, but Moses intercedes (as he did all the time) and convinces God to stay with them; otherwise, says Moses, how will the rest of the world know that they have been chosen as God’s unique and select people? God relents to Moses’ request, and then Moses takes it one (big) step further and asks God to show his Glory to Moses. God, confirming that he knows Moses well, agrees but states that his face cannot be seen. He places Moses in a cleft in a rock and as he passes by he pronounces himself to Moses while covering Moses’ face with his hand allowing him to see only his back.
This part of the Torah (Ex. 34:5-7) is known as the 13 Attributes of God, which God proclaims to Moses as he passes by him (I am paraphrasing from my Chumash):
- The LORD– God reveals his “name”, which the Rabbi’s state is his character;
- The LORD– this repetition is explained in the Talmud as meaning that God is the same merciful and forgiving God before a person sins as he is after a person sins;
- God– the all-mighty Lord of the Universe, ruler of nature and mankind;
- merciful– full of affectionate sympathy for the sufferings and misery of human frailty;
- and gracious– assisting and helping, consoling and raising up the oppressed;
- long-suffering– slow to anger, not hastening to punish the guilty but giving them time to repent;
- abundant in goodness– plenteous in mercy, granting gifts and blessings even when underserved;
- and truth– eternally true to himself, rewarding those obedient to his will;
- keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation– remembering the good deeds of one’s ancestors and reserving reward to the most distant descendants;
- forgiving iniquity– bearing with indulgence the failings of people;
- transgression– evil deeds from malice and rebellion against the Divine;
- and sin– shortcomings due to heedlessness and error;
- but will by no means clear the guilty– he will not allow the guilty to go unpunished.
Do you realize how amazing this sentence is? It is God telling us all exactly who he is and explicitly what he wants us to know about him so we can know how he wants us to behave. After all, how many times does he tell us to “be Thou holy, as I am holy?” Well, right here are the instructions for how we can accomplish that goal.
And you know what I think? I think they aren’t all that difficult to do.
Obviously, we aren’t the LORD, the Lord God and if someone was good to us we won’t be around to remember their kindness to their thousandth generation. Other than those two things, though, I think we are all capable of emulating these other qualities of God.
The reason this specific reading is done now is to demonstrate that God wants to be with us- the whole idea of Sukkot is to remember the way God dwelt with and cared for our ancestors in the desert. It is a way of bonding with them and God. God always wants us to be in his presence. In fact the festival of Sukkot, according to Leviticus 23: 33-36 is to be seven days long, and the 8th day is a Shabbat rest. The Rabbi’s explain in the Talmud (somewhere) the 8th day was added by God because he so enjoyed dwelling with his people that he extended Sukkot for another day. I know that is unsubstantiated by the actual scriptures, but it is such a nice thought and it does fit in with what we know of God and his love for his children, that whether it is absolutely the truth or not, it is not dishonoring to God and a wonderful expression of God’s love.
We can never be as God is, but we can always be closer to how he wants us to be. He tells us in this section of the Torah exactly what we need to know about him, and as far as I am concerned, that is all I need to know. Frankly, for me (at least) just trying to emulate these attributes of God is more than enough of a challenge for me.
Are you up to the challenge?
May your remaining days of Sukkot be a blessing to you.