The dialogue between Hashem and Moshe after the sin of the golden calf brings us the declaration of the thirteen attributes (shlosh esrei midot) –“Hashem, Hashem – compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity and willful sin and error and who cleanses (venake),” which most of us would recognize better in Hebrew. This is one of our holiest prayers and the Talmud tells us that Hashem wrapped himself in a tallit in prayer and said “whenever Israel sins let them say this order of prayer and I shall forgive them.”
If you look at these verses in this week’s Parsha Ch 34v6-7, the text that we recite in prayer stops in the middle of verse 7 which continues “but not cleanse completely (lo yenake), recalling the iniquity of the parents on children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” It possibly makes sense not to add this as when asking forgiveness we do not want to remind Hashem that he may decide not to forgive us and even make the next generations pay for our wrong doing. Nevertheless we stop in the middle of a sentence and if you look at the Hebrew text with the singing notes, there is no break in the wording and the words – “venake lo yenake” are sung as one phrase.
This has often puzzled me and when proclaiming it aloud, as is custom, on fast days, I am almost tempted to finish the sentence and interestingly I have backing from R Baruch Halevi Epstein who is often prepared to challenge accepted custom. Looking at other similar biblical phrases one would normally translate “venake lo yenake” as emphasizing the point “Hashem would surely cleanse us and so he expected the whole phrase should be included.
In fact R Epstein suggests that Rashi takes a similar stance and reads it as a single phrase. He interprets Rashi as saying that Hashem will surely forgive us but nevertheless we do not get off scot free, but Hashem only makes us pay for wrongdoing little by little. Rashi then adds “and our Rabbis learned (quoting the Talmud) Hashem cleanses for those who repent and does not cleanse for those who do not, however he is patient and waits.” Rashi then explains the continuation of the sentence that if Hashem sees the next generations behaving in good character there will no retribution as the older generations managed to pass on good behaviour to the children.
Hopefully this is not too complex to follow and what we really need to understand is why we are told that all we need is to say these words and like a magic formula, we will be forgiven for any wrong doing. But perhaps the secret is not in the words but in expressing Hashem’s character – we need to take on these thirteen attributes ourselves and in particular the ability to forgive and be patient and pass this on to the next generations.
I love listening to the radio but on the way to work sometimes the morning discussions are too full of criticism and not enough positive stories. So occasionally I will turn to 93fm Radio Kol Chai a more “charedi” channel. The other day I was amazed when I flicked to them that they were interviewing the commander of a Navy missile boat patrolling opposite Gaza and going into great detail of the life of the sailors in the Israel Navy and how they protect us. Who knows maybe some of the next generation might take an interest and join the Navy and just like our family, it will pass on in the generations, I served in the Navy and so continued my son Gaby.