The 13 Middot – A Shower of Love
Shiur by Rebbetzin Tamar Taback, 2017
Listen to it here
Transcribed by Cassia Riekhoff
The Vilna Goan says that we are here to be metaken hamiddot (rectify our “middos”, attributes), that is why we are here, and is the foundation of the Torah and all the mitzvot. If we don’t engage in this work, then, says the Vilna Goan, what is the point of life? The concept of doing a cheshbon hanefesh (soul accounting) needs to be discussed with a way to approach this massive topic of tikkun hamiddot.
We will start by delving into the first chapter of Tomer Devorah, the classic source of the 13 Middot/ attributes of Hashem’s compassion that is the cornerstone of the Yom Kippur davening service. It’s all about emulating Hashem’s middot which is a beautiful approach to this topic of tikkun hamiddot.
2 Chesbon HaNefesh
The essence of cheshbon hanefesh is having in your mind’s eye an image of who you can be in potential. And then we overlay over that with who you are in actuality, the truth of the matter. Then you see where these two images are not in alignment. So obviously it is important to have a goal and know what your potential is and how great you can become which is an unfolding avodah/ work in progress. The step that we need to take in closing this gap is in the realm of our character, our middos.
Just like we said that Hashem interacts with the world through His 10 Middot, (loosely translated as the 1 sefirot), so too, our middot are how we interact with our lives, with our world, and everybody in it. In our relationships, our essence is interfacing with the essence of another through our middot. So when we want to improve our lives, we improve our middot.
The Gemara says, who is a true talmid chacham? Somebody that can turn his cloak inside out.
→ i.e. somebody who has the full spectrum of choice and can choice the appropriate response; at times, chessed, at times gevurah. As the Rambam says, someone who can always modulate and find that golden thread, that perfect mean so that you are not an extreme form of any given midda. This requires a high-level form of self-control, awareness and mastery.
→ the commentaries explain that one of the words for ‘garment’ is midda. (see psalms 133:1) So in one moment you see that you need to be compassionate, in the next you see that now you need to hold your ground and select the appropriate response.
In order to embark we need a map, a structure of what the middot are so that you can see where you are holding in each one. This is the cornerstone of any mussar work. Starting with Rav Yisroel Salanter, he boiled these traits into 13 Middot. The Vilna Goan goes according to the 4 essential elements that the whole world is made up of, that the human being (who is a microcosm of the world) is made up of. Fire, earth, water, air. Each one has a negative manifestation and a positive manifestation; it’s all there in the Even Shlaima. The Ramchal develops the Mesilat Yesharim of developing and working on each individual middah until you reach the peak of spiritual achievement. Orchos Tzaddikim also goes through different middas. So, we can see that developing and working on your middos is the essence of self-growth. And it is a very appropriate time as we stand before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to look at your middos.
Another special approach is to develop your middos through the way in which you emulate Hashem. Looking at Hashem’s 10 middas/sefirahs, understanding them, and seeing what they each mean. Today we are going to look through this and choose one of them to study more deeply. We are going to the top, which is called keter, crown.
We are a replicate, a mirror image of Hashem’s spiritual form. Hashem has no body but He has imbued our physical body with the characteristics of these middos. And we said that middos are how you interact with the world but they are not the soul itself. Your soul is not your character, not your personality. So, when you let off steam when you shouldn’t, you haven’t damaged your soul. But your garment has gotten a little damaged and soiled and needs a bit of attention.
The middot, says the Tanya, are the garments of your soul. So, can we know Hashem directly, face to face, essence to essence…? At this stage of history, we cannot. So how does Hashem interact with us, how do we know Him? We study His middot, we study His garment.
When you look at someone’s arm, but it’s covered with a sleeve, you think you can see the arm but what you really see is the sleeve. However, you can still see the shape of the arm and this tells you something about the arm.
We are going to be focusing on keter, and guess what? It also has 13 branches or channels. It’s like to top of a fountain-head. Those 13 channels are the 13 middos of Rachamim that the whole seder of Yom Kippur is based on.
Why is this such a perfect way to look at tikkun hamiddot? Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, who wrote Tomer Devorah, was the teacher of the Arizal. The Arizal said about his teacher that he had no reason to die because death is only from sin; the only reason therefore is because of the sin of Adam.
Devorah the Prophetess would sit under the Palm Tree with its leaves because she had incredible tzniut and whenever she consulted men, they would be in full view. The numerical value of Tomer Devorah is Moshe Cordevero. The midrashim say that a Tamar is a tree that has one heart and that heart is facing Heaven and its sap goes in one direction. And so too the Jewish people have one heart facing our Father in Heaven. Also, a bee, a devorah, is collecting honey only for the sake of the hive. So too the Jewish people, whatever they do is for the sake of Hashem.
“A man needs to emulate his Creator. Then he will truly resonate with the form of the Supernal on High.” In image and in form. Because if you’ve got a body, you are already in the form of G-d (because Hashem has no body and the 10 sefirot are embodied in the body).
In your body you have G-dliness in you – but what a pity when we don’t act in a way that is G-dly. Then we have a G-dly body, we are in the form of G-d in body but not in action, feeling, behavior, or in essence. And that is a very embarrassing situation because our potential is built in and yet through our actions we are showing that we are not holding there. So, we are trying to close that gap between our potential and where we are actually at.
“When we are like Hashem in body but not in behavior we are betraying our body. We are beautiful form and a terrible demeanor. The way we emulate G-d is our behavior, our actions, our thoughts, our speech. Therefore, we have to align ourselves starting with the first midda of Hashem which is keter [crown]. These are the 13 Attributes of Compassion. And hinted in the deepest way possible in a verse in Micha.”
This verse in Micha we say during Tashlich which is hinting at the 13 Middot which is the deepest level of the Yom kippur davening and it’s all in keter.
We can either approach things psychologically or spiritually. Today we have so much psychological insight which is so helpful and accessible, this is a ‘self-help generation’. However it is not Torah. What is out there psychologically in terms of self-help and human development is not Divine. And the 13 Middot is a path of development which is Divine.
In truth, we cannot emulate Hashem because of our human nature and as you work through the 13 traits/ attributes, you’ll see that as a human being, you absolutely can’t do this. But your soul can! Your neshama can, because your neshama is Divine. The Divine potential with which to emulate Hashem, which He has commanded us to do, to go in His ways– you can do because you are a Jew and because Hashem gives you siyata deshmaya. The stakes are high and this is not a psychological class, this is a Divine class!
So, if you can’t do certain traits, it’s totally understandable and you’re normal. But Hashem is saying, you can emulate Me and I will give you siyata deshmaya, heavenly assistance to do so, and when you do that you are rising above your human nature and you are activating your G-dly soul, your highest will. And guess what– that’s your keter 🙂 Keter is your will.
So, when you do Hashem’s will in these 13 Middot of Rachamim, you are using your highest bechira, your highest will, and you are submitting yourself to the Torah and the Divine completely! Because there is no other humanly possible way to do this if you did not say, Hashem, this is what you want from me, this is what I’m trying to do. And this is a tikkun hamiddot which floats to the top of all the rest. This is because with all the other methods of working on your character you’re still working within the human realm. We are very much in the human realm– in the emotions and what gets triggered and what comes up and naming your feelings and processing them. But these 13 Middot are Divine.
Why is it called “of Rachamim”?
These 13 channels of Hashem’s “Keter”, so too speak, connect to all the other sefirot, connect to us, and flow down through us. Why are they called the 13 channels of compassion, of rachamim? This is very inspiring.
Why couldn’t they have been called the 13 channels of loving kindness? Doesn’t that sound good? If you were writing a machzor wouldn’t you choose that? Why rachamim and what is rachamim?
We could try to say that it’s because mercy comes when you don’t deserve it but that could be true for loving kindness, too. When you do an act of kindness for someone that does not deserve it then your act of loving kindness becomes much greater.
We have Moshe to thank for these 13 middot because when we sinned at the chet ha’egel, sin of the golden calf, Hashem was not going to forgive us and He was going to annihilate the nation with Moshe. Moshe could have been okay with that but no, he begged for the Jewish people and Hashem taught him these attributes so that he could use them. And you should know that every time you say them, you evoke them! And they start to flow no matter what. Hashem taught Moshe how to daven then and always– a continuation. Every time we tap into this, we tap into that original time that Hashem taught them to Moshe.
Which of the genders has the organ that is the same word as rachamim? Women– a woman has a womb which is called a rechem, and this the space in the body for another to be born. A man has no rechem but a woman has a rechem. And a step deeper, when you are vomiting in the first trimester, and you have backache and reflux etc, and you go to the doctor to tell him your symptoms, it’s the only “condition” where you’ll say all these symptoms and he’ll say you’re totally fine! So, are you throwing up and having backache because of this tiny little fetus inside your womb? No, you’re not doing it for that – you’re doing it for what it will become. Rachamim is saying that right now you may not deserve it but I know what you will become, what you could become. And Hashem gives us space to do teshuva, to explore, to search, to come close to Him, to learn. And on a mystical level it is fitting that it is the Keter. In order for Hashem to create the world He had to create a space for us to exist because before the Creation and the Middot, before He imbued anything into the world, it was just His endless light and there was no place for us to exist.
We “love” love, and we love talking about love, and of course that is His essence, His goodness. But now we are in the days of judgement, of din. So how do we combine these two paradoxical emotions of love and awe? Love with fear, trepidation, trembling. The answer is rachamim. Rachamim says, I love you, I want you to be great, you can be great, I have high dreams for you, you have high potential, and din says, I know you can do this, I’m holding you up to it, I’m sending you everything you need to actually do this. And He doesn’t let go of the din. Love is not about forgoing the judgement. Rachamim is about incorporating the judgement with the love. And of course, this is the highest level of love.
3 Tomer Devorah
מִי־אֵ֣ל כָּמ֗וֹךָ נֹשֵׂ֤א עָוֺן֙ וְעֹבֵ֣ר עַל־פֶּ֔שַׁע לִשְׁאֵרִ֖ית נַחֲלָת֑וֹ לֹא־הֶחֱזִ֤יק לָעַד֙ אַפּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־חָפֵ֥ץ חֶ֖סֶד הֽוּא׃
יָשׁ֣וּב יְרַֽחֲמֵ֔נוּ יִכְבֹּ֖שׁ עֲוֺֽנֹתֵ֑ינוּ וְתַשְׁלִ֛יךְ בִּמְצֻל֥וֹת יָ֖ם כָּל־חַטֹּאותָֽם׃
תִּתֵּ֤ן אֱמֶת֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב חֶ֖סֶד לְאַבְרָהָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ מִ֥ימֵי קֶֽדֶם׃
There are the 13 Aspects of Hashems ‘essence’ that He showed to Moshe. It says that Moshe was hiding in the crevice of the rock and Hashem passed before Him and He said, “nobody can see my face”.
Nobody came as close as Moshe, panim el panim, face to face, to Hashem. And even Moshe could not see Hashem’s absolute face, His essence and still live to tell the tale. It says in Shmos, when Moshe is begging for forgiveness, Moshe says, “show me Your glory!” Hashem says, “I am going to pass all my goodness, all my essence, before your face. I will have compassion and be merciful on those that I will have compassion and be merciful on.” And then Hashem teaches him the middot and he calls them out. (This is a great proof that G-d’s essence is goodness, by the way.)
Those 13 middot that Moshe said are paralleled perfectly by that verse in Micha that we say in Tashlich.
18 words, 13 channels of Divine mercy. We say it, we evoke it. What is this shower head, this shower of light bathing us in compassion?
3.1 Mi kel ka’mocha – מִי־אֵ֣ל כָּמ֗וֹךָ – Who is a G-d like you?
First we are going to say the G-dly attribute, and then we are going to see how this is not human nature, and then we are going to see how we can emulate this G-dly attribute in the following way.
“Who is a G-d of compassion and love like You?” What does this mean? Says the Tomer Devorah that when we sin, it is the most ludicrous thing that we don’t drop dead. Because who gave us our body, our breath, our organs, our life force, our vitality? Hashem. And we are using the life force and the energy and the body that Hashem gave us to betray Him, to cover up malchus shamayim in the world– which is technically the opposite of why we are in the world. So technically Hashem should say, I am giving you this energy for a certain purpose to do and you are not doing that, so I am not going to invigorate you and to nourish you. Mi kel ka’mocha– who is a G-d like you that continues to nourish and give life-energy to the sinner even during his sin?
Imagine, in terms of emulation on the human plane. Your son has a credit card connected to your bank account and he keeps spending money on things that you are not happy about. You could just cut off the card, block the card from working, but you keep it open. It’s not logical to do that.
The point here is to nurture those who have sinned. Your husband sinned against you– have you put him in the dog box? Make him supper, nurture him. Don’t make their action contingent on your loving kindness. This is Divine.
3.2 No’sei avon – נֹשֵׂ֤א עָוֺן- Forgiving iniquity
It says that Hashem pardons our iniquity. But literally, nos’ei means to carry. What does it mean that Hashem carries our sin? The Tomer Devorah explains that not only is Hashem nurturing us with His energy (each trait builds on the one before) while we are rebelling against Him, but every time we do a sin we create a dark force, a negative spiritual energy, a prosecutor, a kateigar. So, imagine, here we are in this early realm and there is a spiritual plane above us. Everything we do shows up there and pops up this negative angel. And Hashem says, who are you? This negative angel says, so and so just made me now because he didn’t bench/ say the birkas hamazon. So, Hashem says, where are you getting your food? (Because angels also need food on a spiritual level, and nobody can exist without Hashem willing them and imbibing them with life). So, Hashem says, how are you living? Who is giving you energy to live? And this negative angel says, I need spiritual energy; Hashem, nourish me, keep me alive. Hashem says, you want Me to keep you alive? But so and so made you, so if you want to be alive then go and get your life-force energy from them. And this kateigar would then go to that person and claim life-energy from the sinner and the sinner would die. Spiritually, in a world of din, you create a dark source so a dark source now takes your life energy, G-d forbid.
Hashem says, I will nourish this one, this bad malach/ angel, this spiritual dark energy that exists because of your sin. He tells the negative angel to leave so and so alone, to give them space, time, grace because they will do teshuva.
no’sei avon– carry sin. First, we saw that Hashem sustains the sinner, and here we see that Hashem is sustaining the dark energy that the sinner created so that it does not collect its life-force thereby cutting the sinner out of the game. Can you see how that is a Divine thing?
Imagine a child does something wrong and they bring in this extra mouth to feed. And you respond, don’t worry my child, I’m still going to give you supper and supper to this bad friend that you’ve just brought into the house. Divine.
3.3 Over al pesha – וְעֹבֵ֣ר עַל־פֶּ֔שַׁע – And remitting transgression
This means that Hashem is the One who removes transgression. Not only does He sustain you and the evil forces that you created that are now in the world, but He actually comes and removes your transgressions. Hashem Himself sprinkles this cleansing water like a water on Yom Kippur and removes our sins. This is like changing diapers. You have a beautiful baby and babies don’t have bowel control. We clean it up because we know what they can become. Hashem is prepared to clean us of our spiritual excrement, of our negative, disgusting contamination. He comes on Yom Kippur and He gets out the water and the soap and washes us down.
3.4 Le’sheairis nachalaso – לִשְׁאֵרִ֖ית נַחֲלָת֑וֹ – Against the remnant of His own people
Why does Hashem have all this compassion? The word she’airis comes from the word she’er, as in she’er basar, a piece of flesh. It’s not: There is Hashem and there is us and it is so kind of Hashem to take care of us. No, says Tomer Devorah, Hashem is us and He is in us; we are a part of Him and when we feel pain, Hashem feels pain and when we need to be punished, it hurts Him because He is a part of us. From Shir HaShirim, He says, “you are my daughter, my lover, my mother, my spouse.”
In the ketuba, the husband gives the wife she’ar ksus v’ona, it’s the same word– she’ar. It’s means we’re one, we are the same thing, we are connected.
When we are receiving punishment, Hashem can’t stand it. He can’t tolerate, He feels it. How do we emulate this midda? We are all interconnected, we are all part of each other and when one person does an aveira there is a tiny little piece of that in every Jew. So, when I do a sin, I blemish my neshama, but I also blemish the piece of your neshama that is in me. So, you really have to say something, you really have to help and find creative ways to help someone who is spiritually in trouble. This is the deepest meaning of ve’ahavta le’reicha chamocha– love your friend like yourself. It’s not like yourself – it’s as yourself! He/she is you because we are all connected. So that is how Hashem feels towards us because that is the truth. Midda k’negged midda, we don’t just fall into human nature of seeing everyone as separate to us but rather we feel this connectivity.
3.5 Lo Hechazik l’ad apo – לֹא־הֶחֱזִ֤יק לָעַד֙ אַפּ֔וֹ – Who has not maintained His wrath forever
He does not hold on to His anger forever.
It brings the description from Torah, it says, you see your enemy’s donkey and he is crouching, not handling his heavy load. So firstly, you are allowed to have enemies in Torah? Who is this enemy? Well, say the commentaries that he is your enemy because he did an aveira/sin and usually you need two witnesses to bring that person to Beis Din but you were the only witness, so there is no way to ameliorate that sinner’s sin. That is the enemy you see and you see that his donkey is struggling. Go and help him.
This is the trait of just letting it go. Yes, they did something bad, yes it wasn’t correct. But the work is to not hold on to it and to abandon it. In the words of the Tomer Devorah, see what is in your heart and let it go. Just let it go.
3.6 Ki chafetz chessed hu – כִּֽי־חָפֵ֥ץ חֶ֖סֶד הֽוּא׃ – Because He loves graciousness!
Because Hashem desires kindness.
The Tomer Devorah brings that when the destructive angel Gavriel was given the task of actually setting the Beis HaMikdash on fire and thereby destroy the whole Jewish people at the time of the destruction, he was instructed to put his hand between the keruvim on the aron and from those hot coals that were there he was going to set the Beis HaMikdash alight. The Midrash says that as soon as he went there to do that, he saw an image of an outstretched hand in the burning coals which was Hashem’s way of saying, “yes, this nation deserves to be wiped out, the Beis HaMikdash needs to be destroyed– but they are so kind to each other, they help each other, they extend a hand, they give tzedakkah.”
No matter we have done, if we have this trait of chessed, Hashem will emulate our chessed and grant us that grace, that chessed. The Divine trait is to keep on doing chessed and Hashem will treat you the way you treat others.
3.7 Yeshuv yarachamaynu – יָשׁ֣וּב יְרַֽחֲמֵ֔נוּ – He will take us back in love;
He will return and He will have mercy and compassion on us once again. The human trait is that once somebody has hurt you there is a blemish, there is a scar in your relationship and a distance in your relationship that has been created. The Divine trait is that not only when you do teshuva does the relationship go back to the status quo but you are even closer than before you sinned. This is a spiritual paradox that when you sin and do teshuva you are better than before you did the sin. But of course, if you sin while having in mind that you can do teshuva then this doesn’t work. The Rambam says that you can’t sin in order to do teshuva. But isn’t that incredible? It says that where those who repented stand, even the righteous can never stand– which means we are closer. This means that you should regret what you’ve done wrong but know that Hashem knew we would sin and he granted us teshuva and we are closer than before.
Says the Tomer Devorah that you can see this in the word teshuva which is “teshuv” and “hey” → which spells out “return the hey.” The Hebrew letter hey represents the shechina, so when you do teshuva you are bringing shechina to the world. We emulate this Divine trait when someone who has upset you comes to you to make amends and reconcile, you emulate Hashem by opening your heart wide open– you fill yourself with compassion for this person who is asking you for forgiveness. Don’t stiffen your heart.
3.8 Eit kavosh avonosaynu – יִכְבֹּ֖שׁ עֲוֺֽנֹתֵ֑ינוּ – He will cover up our iniquities,
You suppress our sins.
What does it mean that Hashem suppresses our sins? The answer to this is that G-d is not fair. You know how people always say this when they are struggling? The truth is that they are right! The whole spiritual system is lopsided to the side of good. In the highest place where we will get our reward, sin does not penetrate at all, ever. What that does mean, the din aspect, is that those sins have to be attended to before we enter that place. We are guaranteed that we will always come to that ultimate place of reward and every mitzva that we have done will exist in its pure form.
3.9 Mashlich bimsulos yam kol chatosam – וְתַשְׁלִ֛יךְ בִּמְצֻל֥וֹת יָ֖ם כָּל־חַטֹּאותָֽם – You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.
Hashem casts into the sea all of their sins.
Says the Tomer Devorah, this is the secret of the goats that were sacrificed at the time of the temple. They would take two goats, one was for Hashem and one was thrown off a stony cliff to die this gruesome death as a way for atoning for our sins. So, the question is, what did this goat do to deserve this death? Well, the qualities and the essence of the satan has been ascribed to that goat. In other words, that goat portrays the satan. By throwing it off the cliff what Hashem is doing is whatever punishment we need to get from the satan or from our enemies– once we do teshuva Hashem punishes the enemies and the satan for punishing us!
This doesn’t seem logical because Hashem hired the satan and our enemies to give us our due judgement based on our deeds. But once we do teshuva, the logic goes like this – why were you hurting My precious people? Why are you coming to make my darlings’ lives miserable? Hashem punishes the ones that he sent to enact judgement. This is not logical, this is Divine Compassion. Can you see how this is not logical? The scales are topped over to the side of grace and chessed and favour but with din still operating. Therefore, it is rachamim.
What does it mean that You cast into the sea? The wicked are compared to the sea (raging waters of unrest). So, whoever Hashem hires in order to give us our due, as soon as we’ve been cleansed, everything goes in to the sea. All the punishment and the suffering goes back on to the satan, into the sea, to wicked who came to hurt us for our sins.
3.10 Titen emes l’yaakov – תִּתֵּ֤ן אֱמֶת֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב ׃
You give truth to Yaakov.
The name Yaakov refers to the average members of our people. Yaakov is the name that refers to the general beinonim, the general am yisroel, the general people, not the extra pious, the extra righteous. Yisroel refers to the lofty aspects, Yaakov to the more general aspects. So, Hashem does what is right with the average people, with the ones who are good, the ones who try to do the best they can, they try to do what is right. And therefore midda kenegged midda, Hashem does what is right for them. And what is right for the average person? Rachamim. Again, the logic doesn’t fit. You would think what’s right for them is justice. We are talking truth now. And what is emes? It’s rachamim in Hashem’s world because His essence is tov, compassion and love.
3.11 Chessed l’Avraham – חֶ֖סֶד לְאַבְרָהָ֑ם
Kindness to Avraham.
This is referring to those that go the extra step, they are really strivers and seekers. They are chassidim in terms of going beyond. So therefore middah kenegged midda Hashem goes beyond even what is just (which we just said is compassion). He gives them extra degrees of love. So too us, we emulate this trait when you are dealing with someone who is an average person– do the right thing and have compassion. When you are dealing with someone who is really something special, who tries so hard, you have to give them even more compassion and assume their righteousness.
3.12 Asher nishbatah la’avosaynu – אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ – As You promised on oath to our fathers
And even when it comes to the wicked who are not trying their best or going the extra mile, they are full of sins and have problematic behavior, they are really not in a good place– Hashem says, Your fathers are Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. No matter how bad you are, no matter how far you’ve strayed, you are the son of the Avot, zchut avos. We can learn that even with wicked people, we need to think, this is a member of Klal Yiroel.
3.13 Mimei Kedem – from days of old. – מִ֥ימֵי קֶֽדֶם – In days gone by.
This is the 13th Middah. This is scary: there comes a time when zechus avot gets used up. There is no longer merit from them. Then what? Then the 13th midda kicks in and that is, Hashem remembers how loyal we were, how pure we were in the days of our youth. And what Hashem does is He doesn’t look at the present, He actually chooses to go back in to the past and access how we were then, access how He felt about us then, and then He draws that feeling into the present and treats us with that midda. We can see that there is nobody who doesn’t deserve an open heart. This is not humanly possible. You can’t do this but you can do this. There was a time when even the most wicked person was just a sweet baby with uncorrupted human potential and that is ideally what we want to relate to and remember.