In the Selichot, we recite Hashem’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, “Hashem, Hashem El Rachum Ve’chanun etc.” The Thirteen Attributes are the primary component of Selichot.
Our Sages taught, “A covenant was made with the Jewish nation that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy will never return empty-handed.” They will certainly be accepted willingly by Hashem. This is because Hashem made a with us that anytime we recite these Thirteen Attributes, He will be filled with mercy towards us.
Thus, when we recite these Thirteen Attributes, one must concentrate on what one is saying. “And Hashem passed before him and exclaimed,” Rabbi Yochanan said, this teaches us that Hashem (figuratively) wrapped himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He told him, ‘Whenever the Jewish sins, let them perform this order before me and they shall be forgiven.’” This means that the Thirteen Attributes bring about forgiveness for the Jewish nation’s sins.
We must nevertheless understand the language of “let them perform this order before me.” Should it not have said “let them recite this order before me”? Rather, as the Torah states, “When you keep the commandments of Hashem your G-d and follow in his ways.” Our Sages taught that following in Hashem’s ways means, “Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful. Just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate.” Follow the attributes of Hashem. If a pauper passes by and asks for Tzedakah and you do not give him, what will they say in Heaven? Where is this person’s attribute of mercy? If an orphan passes by and you do not help him, they will say, “Where is this person’s attribute of kindness?” If one does not act mercifully to others, why would Heaven treat him mercifully? However one acts with others, he will be treated the same way by Heaven. “Truth will sprout from the land and justice will look over from Heaven.” Heaven is like a mirror; one will be treated however he treats others.
This is why Hashem said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “Let them perform this order before me and I will forgive them,” for this only applies when they emulate the attributes of Hashem.
The verse states, “Who acts with abundant kindness and truth.” One of the Sages of the Talmud named Ilfa asked: If Hashem judges based on truth, how can He judge based on abundant kindness? Isn’t this contradictory? Ilfa answered: At first, Hashem judges based on truth, i.e., what one deserves. However, when Hashem sees that one cannot withstand this harsh judgment, Hashem then judges him with mercy and kindness.
However, this too is hard to understand, for should the Torah not have written “With truth and abundant kindness” if this is the case? One is first judged with truth and only then with kindness!
There is an incident quoted in Sefer Ha’Yalkut. Once there was a good and gracious king. He had a subject who he loved very much. This person constantly extolled the king and spoke about how kind and merciful he was. This person traveled throughout the land and always exclaimed to the public how great the king was. “Look how royal he is! Look how good his heart is and how the king treats his citizens!” This went on until the entire nation adored and admired the king greatly. The king knew exactly who the person was who was praising him so much and he kept it in his heart.
One day, this individual committed a terrible crime. Since this person was well-respected, he was put on trial before a tribunal of five senior justices to try his case. They came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do and as a punishment for having broken the law, he would have to serve a year in prison.
One of the judges, who was a good friend of the accused, turned to the other judges and said: “My friends, we all know that you are correct. This man broke the law and he deserves a severe punishment. However, let us give him an alternative. Let us impose a fine of one-hundred thousand dollars to be paid to the king’s treasury. We all know he does not have that kind of money, however, let us at least give him that option!” The judges agreed and, in the verdict, they wrote that this man must serve a year in prison or, alternatively, pay one-hundred thousand dollars to the king’s coffers and redeem himself. The verdict was signed and was set to take effect in thirty days’ time.
Unfortunately, this man did not have such an exorbitant sum of money and thus, he started seeking loans from all sorts of organizations. All of them told him that they could not loan him more than five-thousand dollars. He traveled far and wide and finally, he gave up. He realized he had no choice but to serve his prison sentence.
On the night before he was due to go to jail, his family came to wish him goodbye and they all cried bitterly. At 10:00 PM, everyone left besides his immediate family.
The king followed this case closely and he new that this person was not able to gather the requisite amount of money to get himself out of a jail sentence. The king went a filled up a suitcase with one-thousand hundred-dollar bills. He called his son, the crown-price and told him, “My son, how can I turn my back on such a loyal subject? He has been so dedicated to me. I must help him but no one may know that I am helping him. Please take this suitcase to his house and at 2:00 AM, break the window of his house, throw in the suitcase, and immediately run away!”
The price faithfully carried out his father’s instructions in the dead of night.
This man and his family woke up startled to the sound of shattering glass. They came downstairs, turned on the light, and saw a suitcase on the living room floor. They originally thought it might be an explosive device, but upon further inspection, they realized it was innocuous. They slowly opened it and yelled, “It is all full of cash!” They counted all the bills and lo and behold, it amounted to exactly one-hundred thousand dollars!
The next morning, this man deposited the money with the county clerk and after the money was counted, he printed him an official invoice to that effect. The clerk told him, “If anyone stops you, show them this official document. You are hereby officially exonerated.” This man returned home merrily and lived out the rest of his days in peace.
This is why the verse states, “With truth and abundant kindness,” for even the truth id based on kindness since Hashem preempts the blow with the antidote. The Gemara (Pesachim 118a) states, “Thank Hashem for He is good, for his kindness is eternal,” even when Hashem punishes us, it is with kindness. Hashem collects what He has given us; He takes the ox from the wealthy man and the sheep from the poor man. Hashem bestows us with money and then collects it from us when needed, such that we are losing nothing, similar to the king who judged his confidant based on “truth”, which was actually all an act of kindness since the king paid the penalty with his own money.
One must therefore accept everything with love. There was once a man who had a healthy milk-cow and he was very happy with it. One morning, he went to the cow and saw that it had died. This man should say, “This cow was an atonement!” Hashem gave him a cow so that He could later collect from it, for Hashem cannot completely forgo the sin, however, it can be atoned through suffering based on love.
During these days of the month of Elul, one must not only accept all of Hashem’s decrees lovingly, one must likewise preempt them with prayer by waking up to recite Selichot and donate Tzedakah, for these things atone for one’s sins. Our Sages taught that instead of one losing all of one’s wealth, one should donate Tzedakah and this will act as an atonement. One who gives money to the poor shall merit Heavenly mercy.
The Gemara relates that the nephews of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had a big store where they did business. One night, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai dreamt that the government was going to come to their store, levy enormous taxes on them, and confiscate all their money!
The next morning Rabban Yochanan came to them and told them, “My sons, there is an orphan couple about to get married. They have nothing, please give them some money.” They replied, “How much should we donate?” He said, “One-thousand dollars.” The next day he came back and said, “We are building a Yeshiva. Please donate another thousand dollars.” Every day, Rabban Yochanan came back to collect money for another worthy Tzedakah cause.
One month later, the taxation authority arrived and notified these nephews that they were instructed to pay an exorbitant tax and all their assets were being frozen until this tax was paid. They came to their uncle to recount their woes and he told them, “I already foresaw that this would happen and I wanted to save as much of your money as I could. Do not worry. They will only collect one-thousand gold coins and then they will exempt you from paying the rest. If you would have already given me this sum of money which I did not yet have the chance to collect from you to Tzedakah, they would not collect even one cent from you!” Indeed, this is what happened.
When one donates to Tzedakah causes, such as to widows and orphans, Torah study, and the like, this sum is deducted from the amount other people were supposed to take from him. Indeed, our Sages taught that if one has the merit, “You shall break your bread for the hungry,” meaning he will donate Tzedakah to the poor. If one does not merit this, “And the severely destitute shall you bring home,” which refers to the taxation authorities who are like paupers, always asking for more and more, and they will come and take one’s money.
One should therefore act wisely and donate a lot of Tzedakah. This is performing kindness with one’s self, as the verse states, “A kind man benefits himself.”