Yochanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would
be impossible for us to say such a thing; this verse
teaches us that God enwrapped Himself like the sheliach
tzibbur (prayer leader) of a congregation and showed
Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever
Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me,
and I will forgive them. (Rosh Hashana 17b)
The Torah writes "And He passed over" (VaYaavor) - which
implies that God did not make do with words alone. In order
to teach Moshe this essential concept of forgiveness through
enwrapping oneself like a sheliach tzibbur (atifa), God
physically demonstrated the act. What is the meaning of this
atifah? Atifah hides the personality of the sheliach tzibbur;
it conceals him. Any individual can pray without a tallit
over his head; but the sheliach tzibbur must cover his head.
Only then can he serve as an emissary of the community.
Sometimes, atifah can silence any attempt to pray. This
is the kind of atifah which causes one to "enter into the rock
and hide in the dust for fear of God and for the glory of His
majesty" (Isaiah 2:10). A person who conceals himself in the
underground tunnels amongst the rocks for fear of facing God,
stands totally helpless before Him. However, there is another
kind of atifah, that of the sheliach tzibbur, who conceals his
entire personality, lowers his stature, and at the same time
lives continually with a sense of mission and responsibility
towards the community. Only then may he recite the Thirteen
Attributes of Mercy.
To become a sheliach tzibbur in this sense, one must
understand how God leads and guides His world and thus
discover how a Jew should be seen by others. Every Jew must
be a leader, each one of us must be responsible for the entire
community. This is achieved through identification with God's
attributes, which constitute his relationship with the
community of Am Yisrael. In order to empathize with God's
attributes, it is enough to identify with the first one, which
the Kabbalists linked to the verse "Who is a God like You"
(Micha 7:18). Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (in his Tomer Devora)
'Who is a God like You' - This attribute refers to the
Holy One as a tolerant King Who bears insult in a manner
beyond human understanding. Without doubt, nothing is
hidden from His view. In addition, there is not a moment
that man is not nourished and sustained by virtue of the
Divine power bestowed upon him.
Thus, no man ever sins against God, without - at that
very moment - God bestowing abundant vitality upon him,
giving him the power to move his limbs. Yet even though
a person uses this very vitality to transgress, God does
not withhold it from him. Rather, He suffers this insult
and continues to enable his limbs to move. Even at the
very moment that a person uses that power for
transgression, sin, and infuriating deeds, the Holy One
bears them patiently...
...This, then, is a virtue man should emulate - namely,
tolerance. Even when he is insulted to the degree
mentioned above he should not withdraw his benevolence
from those upon whom he bestows it.
Only when man has enwrapped himself like a sheliach
tzibbur, when his personality, his ego, does not exist, when
his whole being is like that of a sheliach tzibbur - only then
can he emulate God's tolerance. And if we succeed in
emulating God's relationship with His people, we are assured
forgiveness for our sins.
The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (1:2) states that on the Day
of Judgment "All creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron."
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) explains:
Like Bnei Maron - IN BAVEL it was translated, 'like a
flock of sheep' [Rashi - like lambs counted for the
animal tithe, which are counted one by one as they pass
through a small opening]. RESH LAKISH said: As in the
ascent of Beit Maron [a textual variant reads 'Beit
Choron': Rashi - a narrow pass where wayfarers had to
proceed in single file, since the valley was deep on both
sides]. RAV YEHUDA SAID IN THE NAME OF SHEMUEL: Like
the troops of the House of David [Rashi - (which pass in
review one by one) as they go out to battle].
All three of these explanations express the experience of
a man standing alone before the Throne of Glory. Generally, a
person is able to console himself by virtue of his membership
in the community. When he contemplates the tzibbur as a
whole, he sees that he is not so bad. He integrates himself
into the community, and does not stand out as being so much
worse than everyone else. The Mishna states: "On Rosh
Hashana all creatures pass before Him like Bnei Maron", one by
one; God assesses each person and looks in all those corners
that he himself has no wish to bring to light, at all those
points which he is trying to hide; but "if a person will hide
himself away - will I not see him?"
One opinion states that each individual comes for
judgment alone, by himself, just as lambs are counted for
tithing. The other Amoraim add the fear of judgment that
accompanies this phenomenon - as in the ascent of Beit Choron
- where the chasm yawns beneath him. Man must climb alone, up
a steep ascent, while at every moment the danger of falling
into the abyss seems imminent.
Rav Yehuda is not satisfied with this. He likens the
experience to that of soldiers of the House of David who go
forth with the awareness that there can be no battle without
And yet, the above Gemara continues, "Rav Yochanan said:
[All the same,] they are all viewed together...[as it says,]
'He fashions their hearts TOGETHER, He who considers ALL their
deeds.'" We may also be judged as a community, and thus draw
God's mercy down upon us. How can we accomplish this task?
If a person is able to enwrap himself as a sheliach tzibbur,
to conceal his personality, to feel with every fiber of his
being a sense of communal responsibility, and thus to proclaim
the Thirteen Attributes - then "a covenant has been made that
they will not be turned away empty-handed".
This feeling of responsibility and mission must pervade
our self-assessment. In the words of the Gemara (Kiddushin
40b): "A person should always see himself [and the whole
world] as half guilty and half innocent ... If he does one
mitzva - happy is he for having tilted himself and the entire
world to the side of merit. If he transgresses one aveira -
woe is he for having tilted himself and the entire world to
the side of guilt..." A person must live with the sensation
that an isolated act of his can cause revolutions and decide
the fate of the entire world. With the sense that one's
actions will affect the fate of the community, we may recite
the Thirteen Attributes and merit God's mercy.
The first two attributes of God are "Hashem, Hashem" - "I
am He before man sins, and I am He after he has sinned and
done Teshuva". Why is there a need for mercy BEFORE the sin?
A person may feel that he is unworthy of acting as a sheliach
tzibbur. He might ask himself: "Am I able to carry the
responsibility for an entire world upon my puny shoulders?
Surely I am as grave a sinner as any." Therefore we must
respond: God was also there before the sin, and saw to it
that no Jew would be able to distance himself to such an
extent that he would be incapable of returning to God! This
is the meaning of "I am Hashem before he sins."
We now stand before the Day of Judgment, knocking on
God's doors, "as beggars and paupers". We have come to beg
God to "hear our jubilation (rina) and prayer." There are two
types of prayer: the prayer of jubilation, and the prayer
which is akin to "the prayer of a pauper when he faints
(ya'atof)" (Tehillim 102:1). ["Ya'atof" can also be
translated "enwraps."] Rina abounds when a person thanks God
for everything that has passed, and requests: "Keep this
forever". But there is another aspect of prayer, "A prayer of
the afflicted when he faints (or enwraps)", when a person -
as the Zohar describes King David - removes his crown,
divests himself of his royal robes, covers himself with
sackcloth, sits on the ground, and utters: "Master of the
Universe, I am poor and lowly!"
"I am poor and lowly." There are times when prayer is
that of "the pauper when he faints". Man is likened to a
fleeting breath. He is like broken shard and like a passing
But a prayer of the pauper before he faints is so, first
and foremost, because of his frustration. How optimistically
he viewed things at the start of the year, and yet the year
has passed, and a person searches in vain for his
accomplishments. Has he achieved even half of what he had
hoped for? It is this same frustration which forms the basis
of the month of Ellul. The Tur explains this idea (beginning
of Siman 585) in the name of Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer. After
the sin of the Golden Calf, that same immense frustration was
felt by Am Yisrael. Just a few weeks earlier, the angels
themselves had harbored jealousy towards Am Yisrael! When
Moshe ascended Har Sinai for the second time, on Rosh Chodesh
Ellul, God commanded him to cause the shofar to be blown in
the camp. This was to warn them not to stray after idolatry.
Therefore, Chazal enacted that the shofar be blown annually on
Rosh Chodesh Ellul and throughout the entire month, to warn us
The Jewish people at that time experienced that same
feeling of frustration, of broken-heartedness. They had
reached the heights of spirituality when Moshe first ascended
the mount - and yet they fell from the highest levels to the
lowest depths. And so Moshe Rabbeinu ascended that same
height once again, vividly recalling the exalted joy of his
first climb. Yet, alas, he had to ascend once more and begin
again, only forty days later. This is the experience of
We could have lived and experienced the spectacle of the
Giving of the Torah all year long. The Gemara relates how
certain Tannaim studied Torah while a fire raged around them.
They said: Why be amazed? Was not the Torah itself given in
fire! At that time, the Words were as joyous as when they
were given on Sinai.
And yet we cannot always maintain the link between our
prayers for spiritual heights, and our everyday lives. We
pray every day: "Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, and cause
our hearts to cleave to Your mitzvot". However, if - God
forbid - the prayer stands by itself, and when we understand
words of Torah, we fail to connect between our prayer and our
achievements in learning - then we risk losing the ability to
experience the raging fire of Torah from Sinai.
We can sit in the Beit HaMidrash and learn, and
experience the sweetness of Torah - and yet lose the link
between prayer and learning. For when a person removes the
tallit from his head, he sees his "self" reflected everywhere
he turns, and it becomes difficult for him to refrain from
revealing his own individuality. It becomes almost impossible
to remain a "sheliach tzibbur" throughout the day.
And so, our prayer is the "prayer of the pauper who
enwraps himself." Needy and destitute, we knock on God's
doors, full of frustration over the distance between our
prayer and our reality. However, this very prayer of poverty
and frustration can also redeem us. If we empathize totally
with this aspect of being paupers, we sense how wholly poor
and empty we really are, this can push us to completely enwrap
ourselves and live with the perception of being a sheliach
tzibbur. In no other period of our history was Am Yisrael so
desperately in need of a leader. No one may divest himself of
the obligation to enwrap himself, and to live as a sheliach
We live with this sensation of "the prayer of a pauper".
In this manner we will knock on God's doors, contemplate the
Thirteen Attributes, and thus we will attain emulation of God.
With God's help, we will not be turned away empty-handed. In
this spirit we draw near to pray and to recite the Thirteen
Attributes. We will request mercy for ourselves and for the
entire Jewish People. We must search our hearts and ask
ourselves honestly if we have risen to the tasks that we took
upon ourselves. Have others really seen us as Bnei Torah in
every step we have made, at home, in the army, in the Beit
HaMidrash, on the street?
If our prayer is coupled with sincere self-examination
and renewed desire to act as leaders of our people, then a
covenant has been made that we will not be turned away empty-
handed. God will fulfill our requests, and we will merit
forgiveness and mercy, and a year of life and peace - for us
and for all the Jewish People.