“Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun…” — Exodus/Shemot 34:6-7
The soul is part of God. And therefore when the soul calls out to God in prayer, part of God is, as it were, calling out to God’s own self. So, when our text says that God passed by Moses’ face, it means that Moses was overcome by reverence and filled with fear and love. And just this is the reason that the word “Adonai” is repeated. The first mentioning of “Adonai” is actually the aspect of God within Moses calling to its other, universal presence.
— R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdi[t]chev (Itturay Torah, II, 268)*
There is a great deal of literature about Exodus/Shemot 34:6-7 in the context of the surrounding narrative, in which God is telling Moses what words to use in the future if the people are in trouble, as they were in the Golden Calf incident.
There is commentary that focuses on Jonah’s use of these words (Jonah 4:2) and on the function of these words in the Tashlich [Rosh Hashanah afternoon crumb tossing] prayers and in the Yom Kippur afternoon reading. In addition, there is much discussion these verses as they appear in the Torah service for non-Shabbat holidays.
My People’s Prayer Book* presents six commentators’ views of these verses’ place in the Torah service. These notes lead to other comments, spanning millenia.
“Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God…” On the High Holy Days and the three biblical festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) when we mark the seasons of the year, we insert a biblical passage that invites God’s mercy. In ancient societies, the seasonal progress of the year and, even more, the passage from one year to the next were not seen as automatically guaranteed. Instead, at each turning point–especially going from year to year–people negotiated an extension of their lease on life with the gods. Since human beings can never fulfill God’s expectations of us, we too ask God to be merciful in excusing our trespasses so that we can continue to live through this transitional time….
— Elliott N. Dorff IN My People’s Prayer Book*
Dorff goes on to explain how the these verses were interpreted by the rabbis of the Talmud to yield “The Thirteen Attributes of God” and describes the “theological audacity” of the liturgy’s trimming of verse 7. Read more of his and other comments at Jewish Lights, beginning on p.66.
Only the “Good”
In Jonah and in the liturgy, the latter part of verse 7 — in which God remembers sins of the fathers for four generations — is missing. This in itself engenders much commentary. For example, Marc Brettler notes:
The liturgy quotes selectively, invoking only God's "positive" attributes, not the problematic notion of intergenerational punishment. In fact, this is accomplished with great violence to the biblical text! The list [in the siddur] ends venakeh, “cleansing,” but in the Bible, that word is part of a larger single phrase, venakeh lo y’nakeh, meaning “he certainly does not forgive (cleanse)!” The tradition of quoting only the ‘good’ part of this description is older than the liturgy; Jonah, for example, justifies his flight from God by doing the same thing (Jon. 4:2)….These types of selective quotations should be seen as creative rather than problematic.
–Brettler, My People’s Prayer Book
* Please see Source Materials for full citations and more details. The passage above from Itture Torah [Torah Gems] is quoted in My People’s Prayer Book. See also Greenberg’s translation of this resource.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.