As the director of a religious school, I recently gave a pep talk to one of my young teachers. I said, “I know this is scary, but you can do this. You are capable of great things, and I believe in you.” These are words that every parent or boss has had to say from time to time to their child or employee. Another way of phrasing that is: “I’m here for you. You’ve got this.”
The parashah of Chol HaMo-eid Pesach begins with Moses feeling anxious. God instructs Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, but Moses is nervous. Moses tries to decline God’s mission. It’s as if he says, "God, I totally want to do this for you, but I don’t know how, and I can’t do it by myself. I really need your help!"
God responds with a statement that I think should be the motto of every teacher, parent, and leader: panai yeileichu vahanichoti, meaning, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden” (Exodus 33:14).
My job is so much more than making sure my teachers have enough scissors and construction paper; it’s being their cheerleader, support system, and resource. When a teacher is feeling uncertain or doesn’t know how to proceed, I have to find a way to guide them.
God sees this ambivalence in Moses. So, God shares the “13 Attributes of Mercy” — Thirteen ways God is gracious and kind.
It doesn’t say this in the Torah, but I personally view these words as a gift from God to Moses—the gift of a powerful prayer that can reassure those who are nervous or uncertain. When you need to know that there is a sacred, warm, and wise presence surrounding you at all times, this prayer can remind you of that. It is also in our liturgy, repeated three times during Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the High Holidays. The 13 Attributes include:
- Adonai (God)
- God (God)
- Eil (all knowing One)
- Rachum (merciful)
- V’chanun (and gracious)
- Erech apayim (slow to anger)
- V’rav chesed (with abundant kindness)
- V'emet (and truth)
- Notseir chesed la-alafim (who remembers deeds of love for thousands of generations)
- Nosei avon (forgives guilt of our sins)
- Vafesha (and transgressions)
- V’chata’ah (and releases us)
- V’nakeih (and frees us from our guilt)
Recite this prayer as a prayer of compassion for yourself when you need it most. Personally, I find this prayer the most useful when I’m on the verge of tears, at my lowest, and don’t know how to move forward. When I don’t know who to turn to or where to find solace, I know that it’s time for me to pray. God is not going to be able to solve my problems—I know that; but God can at least hold my hand. This is my prayer calling out to God for strength. I imagine God’s hand on my shoulder, whispering, “David, I’m with you. You’ve got this.”
This prayer can also serve in a completely different capacity. When I’m feeling down on myself, it’s usually because I’ve screwed up and I’m punishing myself. I’ll start making unkind comments about my own intelligence. I’ll convince myself I don’t deserve great things. Or even worse, I’ll feel like I deserve to feel punished. I guess I think being hard on myself is somehow productive, but of course, the only purpose it served was to make myself feel even worse.
When I get into my head in such a dark way, this is another opportunity when I know I have to turn to prayer and use the 13 Attributes. When I screw up, does God want me to feel judged and chastised, or does God want me to hold my head up and move forward with grace?
This list of Attributes does not just tell us all the ways that God is merciful to God’s people; it’s telling us how we can be merciful toward ourselves. After all, we are God’s people. All of us.
When you’ve failed to show compassion or grace because someone caught you in a moment when you were stressed, is it possible for you to doand then show compassion and grace to yourself (rachum v’chanun)? When you’ve made a big mistake at work and people are unhappy with you, can you be slow to anger with yourself (erech apayim)? When you’re on a fitness journey, and skip the gym one night, can you be abounding in kindness to yourself (rav chesed)? When you tell a half-truth, can you just endeavor to try to do better the next time (emet)? Perhaps you found out that your parents did something harmful or problematic years ago. Instead of feeling blame and shame, can you extend kindness to the thousandth generation (notser chesed laalafim)? When you lose your temper and hurt the feelings of someone you love, after you do t’shuvah, can you find a way to alleviate the guilt, wrongdoing, and sin for yourself (nosei avon vafesha v’chata’ah v’nakeih)?
There’s a lot to being a leader. It’s so much more than increasing return on investments, membership numbers, or any other quantifiable goals. Being a leader is being a source of support to the people who look up to you. Being a teacher, parent, or leader is showing by example and being a source of support to yourself.