by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
Adonai, Adonai, G!d, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth, showing compassion to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. (Ex. 34:6-7)
G!d speaks the Divine name twice! Wouldn't once be enough? Whose attention is G!d trying to reach?
The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that “Adonai” is G!d's attribute of compassion, and that the Divine Name is said once before a person sins and once after the person sins and repents. It’s a nice image. I think also about Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s understanding of the four letter tetragramaton as a breath that happens when we try to pronounce the unpronounceable name, and he refers to G!d as the Breath of Life. So, the Divine Name being spoken twice is sort of like G!d breathing deeply twice, one before we sin and once after we sin and repent, or, in the verse above, two deep breaths before naming the aspects of Divine mercy and forgiveness that are available to us.
Jewish tradition teaches that we are to walk in G!d’s ways. Accordingly, this means that we, too, need to have all the qualities of forgiveness listed in this verse. The compassion to a thousand generations might be tough for one individual, but at least we can tryto be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness and truth, and forgiving of other’s transgressions. And taking two deep breaths can help us just as much, or even more, as it can help G!d! If we breathe deeply, letting the air in and out, with conscious awareness that we are bringing into our bodies molecules that were released from some other organism or from the Earth, perhaps we can better manifest in ourselves these amazing Divine qualities.
Philosopher and nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore writes inThe Pine Island Paradox: “if you sit still in the dark, breathing quietly, the world will come to life around you…and then you will understand: you are kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awareness, alive in a world of lives, breathing as the shrimp breathe, as the kelp breathes, as the water breathes, as the alders breathe, the slow in and out. Except for argon and some nitrogen, every gas that enters your lungs was created by some living creature—oxygen by plankton, carbon dioxide by the hemlocks. Every breath you take weaves you into the fabric of life."
When we are confronted by a difficult situation with another person, if we breathe deeply and remember the water, the oxygen, the nitrogen; the rain, the oceans, the mountains; the rain forests, the deserts, the water’s edge; the frogs, the salamanders, the bacteria – if we in those two deep breathes can allow such images to pass through our minds, reminding ourselves that we are but one tiny part of the amazing web of life on this amazing planet, and that the Breath of Life sustains us all, perhaps we will find it easier to walk in G!d’s footsteps and to be merciful and forgiving. Perhaps we will be able to look more kindly at our neighbors and ourselves. Perhaps an abundance of goodness and truth will seep into our beings, and bring healing to us and to the Earth.
With all my heart and all my soul, I pray, may it be so. Amen. Selah.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (ARJ '05) is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.