Rabbi Richard Sarason, in a recent explanation of "Festival Additions to the Torah Service," highlighted the inclusion, among those special prayers, of this passage from Exodus, Chapter 34, verses 6 and 7:Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and gracious God
slow to anger, abundant in mercy and faithfulness,
extending kindness to the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.
The "scene" in Exodus, Chapter 34 has always intrigued me, even more than the passage in Exodus, Chapter 20 in which God declared, for the first time, the Ten Words/Divine Utterances/Commandments. Moses' return trip up the mountain, with the "two tablets of stone like the first set" in his hands, creates a poignant moment of divine-human reconciliation. I find myself drawn to such tales of "coming back together," whether it is this reaffirmation of the covenant, or the episode in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, or Ray Kinsella asking the ghostly apparition of his father, "Hey, dad, you want to have a catch?" Even the Beach Boys' current 50th Anniversary tour qualifies as an exercise in reconciliation.
None of these encounters would touch the human heart so deeply were it not for our capacity to "let go." We have it in our power to "write in sand" the deeds of others that caused hurt, which would better be forgotten, and to inscribe in stone the positive acts that would enable true fellowship, acceptance, and even love to endure.
Chanting the passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 as I stand before the open ark during our festivals and the High Holy Days is both an awesome and intimate experience. There is already a sense of closeness as we remove the Torah from the ark and chant/sing the declarations of the daily and Shabbat liturgy. These words add the elements to the Torah service of humility, honesty, and return. They express humility and honesty, because reciting this passage is an admission that we may have done something that calls for mercy, patience or forgiveness. This passage reflects "return," t'shuvah , because standing before the open ark (even for those not on the bimah) links us physically to God's eternal teachings embodied in the Torah. It is as if we are right next to Moses in the cleft of the rock, unable to see God's face, but comprehending a divine presence that not only passes by us but accompanies us with every step we take.
The recitation of the divine attributes from Exodus, Chapter 34 is not only a characterization of God, but also a guide for us. As God is kind, compassionate, merciful and gracious to us, we need to act with kindness, compassion, mercy and grace. As God is described as "slow to anger," we need to remind ourselves that there are times when it is best to hold back our temper and allow our patience to direct our words and deeds. In community life, there are so many times when we or those around us may not make the right choice, so that estrangement and conflict will become inevitable, unless we remember that asking and granting forgiveness can heal the hurt, repair the breach, and restore wholeness, respect and unity.
Taking the Torah from the ark, bringing it out to the congregation, and reading from its words reminds us to keep those teachings "in our mouths and in our hearts, so we can do them." (Deuteronomy 30:14). The passage from Exodus, Chapter 34 teaches us that there are second chances for an individual or a community. God seems to want Moses and the Israelites to remain close to the divine and to each other. So should we seek that closeness in our families, our congregations, and within and between nations.
Musically, I find many melodies expressive for the Exodus 34 passage, such as the first setting that I learned, composed by Louis Lewandowski. Listen My favorite is Leon Sher's melody, sung with intricate harmonies by Beged Kefet. Listen The voices come together in such a way to reflect the intimacy of that moment between God and Moses, and the strong bonds that can continue to link us together as we seek to make divine teachings come alive every day. May kindness, compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness enable us to create and sustain love and peace within the human family.