God’s “Secret”

So, God is powerful, and God is kind. God can be trusted and relied upon to carry us through whatever vicissitudes life brings. However, all of this assumes that our relationship with Him is in proper order. What if we have severed or damaged our connection to God? Can it be repaired? Is God willing to give us a second chance?

Tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness are indispensable to the survival of any intimate relationship—even more so in our relationship with God. We must know that we are never beyond redemption, that we are able to re-establish our bond with Him at any time, no matter what we have done to distance ourselves from Him in the past.

In Steps 5, 6 and 7, the recovering addict is guided through a process of removing the blockages that impede his or her connection to God. The very fact that this process is prescribed implies that God, for His part, is willing to restore the damaged relationship. These Steps make clear a presupposition that God is tolerant and forgiving. As the prophet Ezekiel (33:11) exhorted the people, “[God] takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn away from their ways and live.”

This is another distinct theological stance. The fact that God is willing to have a relationship with imperfect beings is not an idea that should be taken for granted. It was only after Moses beseeched God to forgive the people for the seemingly unforgivable sin of the Golden Calf that God revealed to Moses the secret of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. God told Moses that whenever the people were in need of compassion, they could invoke His Attributes of Mercy by enumerating them as follows:

God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth; preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error . . . Who cleanses . . . (Exodus 34:6–7)

The Talmud says, “Were this not an explicit verse, we could never have said such a thing on our own.” In other words, if God Himself had not divulged this secret to Moses, we would have no reason to assume that God is willing to bear our imperfections or to reconcile with those who have transgressed His will.

In addition to the above verses in Exodus, the Zohar points to another passage in Scripture that also contains Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The “Superior Thirteen Attributes,” as they are called, are found in the writings of the prophet Micah (7:18–20):

Who is a God like You, who bears transgression, and pardons the wrongdoing of the remnant of His inheritance? He does not sustain His anger forever, for He desires lovingkindness. He will, once more, have compassion on us, [and] forget our transgressions; and You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the ocean. Grant truth to Jacob, [and] lovingkindness to Abraham, as You vowed to our forefathers long ago.

The sixteenth-century Kabbalist Moses Cordovero elucidates the meaning of each of these attributes as follows:

  1. “Who is a God like You”—God enlivens us even when we choose to misappropriate this vitality.
  2. “Who bears transgression”—God protects us from being consumed by the negativity that we have unleashed, thus giving us the opportunity to return to Him.
  3. “And pardons the wrongdoing”—When we return to Him, God cleanses us.
  4. “Of the remnant of His heritage”—God empathizes with our pain, for we are His “inheritance.”
  5. “He does not sustain His anger forever”—God allows Himself to be appeased.
  6. “For He desires lovingkindness”—God lovingly emphasizes our merits, not our deficiencies.
  7. “He will once more have compassion on us”—God grants a fresh start to those who return to Him.
  8. “[And] forget our transgressions”—God chooses to “forget” our past misdeeds, so that they do not interfere with our present relationship with Him.
  9. “And You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the ocean”—God views our mistakes as expendable.
  10. “Grant truth to Jacob”—God is kind even to those who uphold only the basic letter of the law, which is personified by Jacob.
  11. “[And] lovingkindness to Abraham”—God displays generosity, as did our forefather Abraham.
  12. “As You vowed to our forefathers”—God conveys merit upon us that is not our own but that of our ancestors.
  13. “Long ago”—When not even the merit of our ancestors is sufficient, God remembers His original love for His people.

Forgiveness vs. Atonement

It is clear from the wording of Steps 5, 6 and 7 that their aim is not just to assist us in obtaining pardon or expiation of guilt. Their main purpose is to fully restore our relationship with God. Judaism calls this process kapparah, which means “cleansing” or “atonement,” and is very different than plain forgiveness. As soon as a person mends his or her ways (and makes restitution, when necessary), God immediately forgives. But that does not mean that the damage to the relationship has been repaired. If your teenaged son takes the car out without permission and gets into a fender-bender, you may not punish him if he is sufficiently contrite, but that does not mean that your full trust for him has been reinstated. Forgiveness means just the waiving of punishment, but atonement is complete reconciliation. Indeed, the origin of the English word atonement is “at-one-ment”—the state of being “at one,” again, with God.

What Steps 5, 6 and 7 indicate is that God makes Himself available for reconciliation. Just as we want to be “at one” with Him, He wants to be “at one” with us, and He is ready to accept us despite our past failings. This is unmistakably the sentiment that underlies the “Seventh Step Prayer”:

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that You now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76)

Judaism teaches that God has no interest in using our failings against us to push us even further away from Him. He is not like a mortal of flesh and blood who holds a grudge, nor does He spurn us for being imperfect. To the contrary, God willingly accepts all those who return to Him. In the words of King David: “. . . a broken and a contrite heart, You, God, will not despise” (Psalms 51:19).

A Dynamic Relationship

On the other hand, as the wording of the Seventh Step Prayer implies, although God is open to our advances should we turn to Him, He does not force us to do so. He waits for us to be ready and willing. When we do approach Him, He not only reciprocates, He also multiplies the effect of our efforts.

Our sages conveyed this thought in many ways:

God says, “My children, make for Me an opening the size of an eye of a needle, and I will make for you openings big enough for wagons and carriages to pass through.”

One who comes to purify oneself is then granted ample assistance from on high.

One who sanctifies oneself even a small bit down in this world is then greatly sanctified from heaven.

This also brings us to appreciate another aspect of our concept of God—His humility. Yes, God is humble. And what is humility but making space for another?

God makes the process of reunion and reconciliation conditional on our approaching Him. Rather than dominating us, God allows us to have an active and defining role in our relationship with Him. In the case of Steps 5, 6 and 7, we have to be truthful with Him about our faults (Step Five); we have to be ready to change (Step Six); and we have to ask for His help (Step Seven). In short, just as God grants us the freedom to stray from Him, He gives us the freedom to seek means of returning. In either case, He has given us room to make our own choice.

We might say that God has entered into a dynamic and collaborative relationship with His creations. He has actually made us partners with Him. There is a Chassidic interpretation of the verse (Genesis 1:26), “And God said, ‘Let us make man . . .’” as God’s call to each and every one of us. God says to each one of us, “Let’s make a man.” God invites the individual to be a partner in the process of his or her own development as a human being. This is key to our understanding of God. Many of us can admit that God must really be great, but we can’t imagine that He would want to have a relationship with someone like us. Of course, this kind of sanctimonious despair is really just an excuse to leave God out of our lives. Sometimes we like to say that God is mean and intolerant, so that we can give up on Him. That is why it is vital that we know that God does not give up on us.

When God created the world, He was not starting a business. He was entering into a relationship. We are not just God’s employees; we are His children. A business needs to make a profit, and employees who don’t pull their weight are let go. A family is different. A parent doesn’t disown a child for “underperforming” or “failing to produce.” Indeed, there is no such concept in a healthy and loving family. To the contrary, when a child strays—even the most vexing and troublesome child—no loving parent will say, “Good riddance.” The parent waits for the child’s return, and experiences great pleasure when the child chooses to do so.

In other words, God has certain expectations for His children. He wants us to live good lives and to treat each other kindly. He wants us to be obedient to Him—but more than He wants any of those things, He wants us to be close to Him. God’s greatest desire is not that His children behave perfectly, but that they come back home. Hence, even when we have violated His will in other ways, His most intense desire remains His will for us to remain connected to Him. This brings us to the very important discussion of God’s will.

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.