One of the core foundational elements of teshuva is the formula of the Thirteen Attributes. It is said in the build up to and the culmination of Yom Kippur.

The Gemara cryptically allegorises that in order to teach them to Moshe, Hashem put on a Tallis like a chazan and shliach tzibbur – a prayer leader. In this guise, Hashem instructed Moshe that if people said the Thirteen Attributes, forgiveness would be abundant.

But why does the allegory need God to dress up in order to forgive us?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the shliach tzibbur (literally – agent of the community) is to enable those who don’t know how to join in. People who don’t know how are dependent on people who do in order to participate.

But this is a one-way relationship – the chazzan does not need an audience to pray – he can do it perfectly well on his own.

Yet should people have need of him, he can take on a greater role and responsibility than otherwise.

The same relationship exists between man and God.

We can’t help ourselves. When we make mistakes, why should teshuva make a difference? Should feeling bad suddenly make right wrong actions?

Yet the allegory offers a powerful resolution.

Hashem can be our shliach tzibbur. And so He gives us this formula for teshuva. Because we need Him to.

On Yom Kippur, towards the end of the day, we read the story of Yonah. What is Yonah’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

Yonah is striking for it’s themes of disobeying God and repentance. Yonah refuses to betray the Jewish people by aiding their enemies, and flees. He run specifically because he knows that God forgives. His prophecy is that Ninveh has forty days til it is destroyed, yet he knows this is only true on the current facts. When the facts change, the results change. This is why we say that repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Perhaps Yonah’s themes indicate a good model for how we think about teshuva. The sailors, who would do anything rather than cast an innocentt overboard, could do teshuva. The people of Ninveh, Israel’s enemies, could do teshuva. Even for pagan simpletons, teshuva is accessible.

Are our standards of what teshuva is, and who it is available to, overly complicated?

More importantly, they listened. Someone told them they had to step up, and they took this call to action seriously. Yonah knew what would happen when people listened. If Ninveh could do teshuva, at a time when the Jewish people would not listen to him, he knew they would attack Israel. He said just just five words, and the impact just five words made on Ninveh, and the impact on history, was massive. Five words that were listened to were more effective than a lifetime serving his own people, who wouldn’t listen, the reason he received his mission in the first place.

Our understandings may be sophisticated, but do we take calls to action so seriously?

Curiously, God never tells Yonah off for disobeying Him by running away. The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a warning not to continue the current path; the prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road. A successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. This shows something powerful. Yonah’s prophecy shows that God doesn’t want to show justice. God wants to show mercy.

Yonah rejected his mission, because he foresaw that if he succeeded, the Jewish people would get justice for it’s sins and evil ways. When forced to complete the mission, he laments this.

God doesn’t tell him he shouldn’t have run. God uses a metaphor to teach Yonah a powerful concept called solipsism – a selfish point of view, where everything revolves around the view holder’s perspective.

Yonah was dying in the desert and wanted to die. A plant grew to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then speaks to Yonah, and calls him out on his solipsism. God shows how selfish Yonah was being, and the same is true for us. It’s selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves on the one hand, and justice for our enemies on the other. To ask for forgiveness, yet deny it to our enemies is solipsistic.

Today is an opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves and those we love. This also poses a significant challenge about how we judge others; would our assessment be different if the tables were turned?

In all, the story leaves us with many pertinent challenges. Do we understand how easily everyone can improve? Do we take calls to action seriously? Do we judge others as favourable as ourselves?

With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we insert the following plea into our prayers:

זכרינו לחיים, מלך חפץ בחיים, וכתבינו בספר החיים למענך אלוקים חיים – Remember us for life, our King who desires to grant life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake.

זכרינו לחיים

We grow up learning about the “Books” of Life and Death, which are essentially the books that categorise one as righteous or evil. So how can we implore Hashem that זכרינו לחיים – that He should give seemingly give a biased judgment? It would seem a fairly simple evaluation; are we or are we not worthy? The judgment should be impartial, so what are we asking for?

One doesn’t transform into a tzaddik because they pray or ask for something; and this isn’t a plea despite our sins. This is a prayer for us to be found righteous. How does it work, if we don’t deserve it?

Being a tzaddik is multi-faceted. Our sages teaches that one can be righteous in certain aspects of their lives.

Does a Paralympian athlete not deserve a gold medal if there is an Olympic athlete who can perform better? No – because the lines are drawn between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

We say זכרינו לחיים – see us as people worthy of life, so treat us individually, separately, in our own category. Let our accomplishments be foremost in our own unique category.

If a child does their best, but fails a test, will the parent get angry? They shouldn’t. Disappointment should only be manifest when the child is capable of more.

מלך חפץ ביים

It’s impossible to be perfect, and no one can stand comparison to objective perfection – the Gemara says that even Avraham would wither in the face of this comparison. But Hashem is kind, and does not expect this of us.

A tzaddik is someone who does their best, which is entirely subjective. What we’re good at can be evaluated externally, and crumble in the face of analysis, or can be evaluated on a personal level – מלך חפץ ביים – that Hashem wants to and can find a way to judge us as being good in our own way.

למענך אלוקים חיים

Why should Hashem give us things we don’t necessarily deserve?

If a person is looking for a house, and the real estate agent asks for a million dollars, is there a problem handing it over? The agent is acting for you; of course there’s no problem!

Hashem has no problem giving us things that help us serve Him better – למענך אלוקים חיים – they’re free! We can ask Hashem for things to help us serve Him better even when we don’t deserve it.

During the Selichos, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayers, we regularly mention that Hashem is ותיק ועושה חסד – He is old, and kind.

We’re probably not paying enough attention when saying this, but this clearly sounds very odd. What is the intent of the prayer by labelling Hashem as “old”, and what effect does that on His kindness? My father explains with a parable.

If someone gets pulled over for speeding on a particular road, and the police officer is in a particularly good mood, perhaps a very good explanation about a family emergency or what have you, will get them off the hook.

But if the same person gets pulled over by the same cop the next day, will the same excuse work? Absolutely not.

Every year, we make the same promises, and make the same excuses. Hashem is ותיק, that same “old” judge as last time, and yet ועושה חסד – nonetheless, He will act kindly with us.