“G-d’s Struggle to Repent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Talmud, in Brachot 7a, reports two similar stories about prayer. Rabbi Yohanan asks in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He says prayers? [He answers:] because the verse in Isaiah 56:7 states: “I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. It does not say “their house of prayer,” but “My house of prayer.” Hence, we learn that the Holy One Blessed Be He prays.

The Talmud then asks: What exactly does G-d pray? Rav Zutra the son of Tobia said in the name of Rav: [G-d’s prayer is:] “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger and that My mercy prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”

The Talmud in Brachot then continues with a fascinating story about Yishmael the son of Elisha the High Priest, who conducted the Yom Kippur service in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yishmael reports: “I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense [on Yom Kippur] and saw Akathriel Jah [literally, the crown of G-d], the L-rd of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: “Yishmael, My son, bless Me!” I replied: “May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and that Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy, and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!” And He nodded to me with His head.

These two enchanting reports demand elucidation. Most of the commentaries explain the description of G-d’s prayer as a reflection of G-d’s fervent desire that the people improve their behavior and be worthy of abundant blessing. In the first passage, the rabbis deduce from the fact that the verse in Isaiah says, “My house of prayer,” rather than “the people’s house of prayer,” that G-d prays. In G-d’s prayer, He reveals His inner desire that His mercy suppress His anger, even though the anger may be justified. We are told that it is the Al-mighty’s fervent wish that His mercy prevail over His other attributes, which usually mete out justice on the basis of strict retribution that fits the offense and give His people the benefit of the doubt, rather than accord strict justice.

The commentators further explain that Rabbi Yishmael, who served as the High Priest, did not in reality see G-d. They suggest that either Rabbi Yishmael saw an angel, or had a vision of G-d as he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The remarkable thing about this Midrash is not that G-d asked a human being to bless Him, but is in the very nature of the blessing. For through the blessing that Rabbi Yishmael the son of Elisha blessed G-d, the essence of all blessings that Jews recite is revealed. A blessing is not praise or thanks to G-d, because G-d does not need our praise. It is, rather, a heartfelt request from G-d that He be “allowed” to continue to endow this world with His good grace and blessing. In essence, it is G-d’s wish to increase the good that already exists. His desire to be blessed is really a desire that humankind pray on G-d’s behalf that He should continue to deal with His people in a just and merciful manner.

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at these stories. Does G-d really pray? Can a human being, even one as great as Rabbi Yishmael the son of Elisha, truly bless G-d? The reality is that the perfect G-d does not need to pray or need our prayers, but, rather, the Talmud here informs us through these intriguing tales, that G-d needs help as well.

It is through such anthropomorphic tales that the Talmud and the Aggadot teach us that G-d “struggles,” so to speak, to overcome His anger against those who betray Him and break His trust. It is as if the Immortal truly needs the blessing of the mortal–-which, of course, is unfathomable.

The message, then, is directed to us, to humans of flesh and blood. We mortals must be humbled and inspired by G-d’s behavior. Just as G-d seeks out others to help Him and bless Him, so should we seek out others who may help us and bless us. Just as G-d prays that His quality of mercy should overcome His anger, so too must we pray that our quality of mercy should overcome our anger.

That the most powerful Being in the world is depicted in the Talmud as needing help is a message of hope, rather than despair. Just as G-d needs to work on His qualities so that He can overcome His anger, so too must we mortals struggle to do the same.

We must not be intimidated by the challenge or regard it with despair. There is hope for us all because G-d, so to speak, is also “mortal.”

It is in this struggle that we gain strength from the example of G-d.

As we enter into our “Holy of Holies” on the High Holy Days, may we encounter the messengers of G-d–our good inclinations and the Divine presence itself, who whisper in our ears, “You can do it!” We must surround ourselves with the “holy incense,” raise our voices in prayer, ask forgiveness of G-d and of ourselves, and rise to the highest of possible heights. After all, we are created in G-d’s image. We are, if not part of G-d Himself, surely a reflection of His image.

This is the message of the High Holy Days. The mere mortal can indeed become immortal, just like G-d. And just like G-d, may we succeed in suppressing our anger, and may our mercy prevail over all our other attributes. Amen.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 8th, 9th and 10th, 2010.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 12th from dawn until nightfall.