Rabbi Cordovero begins the Seventh Level of Mercy with a well-known teaching from the Talmud (Berakhot 34b): “in a place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand,” a statement that counterintuitively affirms the power of repentance. Not only is the penitent accepted back into Divine favor, the penitent is drawn still closer than before the transgression! Rabbi Cordovero derives the reason for this phenomenon from another Talmudic passage connected to the Hebrew letter he (pronounced “hey”), which is shaped like a kind of covered patio: roofed overhead, a wall to the right, a half-wall to the left, and open at the bottom (ה). The repentance process takes place when a person falls out the bottom of the he. It is impossible to climb back along the same path of descent; rather the penitent must ascend on the outside of the letter, finally entering through the tiny opening at the top left. This arduous process gives the penitent greater strength, and renders the penitent more beloved to God than even the completely righteous individual who has never fallen.
From the human perspective, the Seventh Level of Mercy addresses the damage done to a relationship through betrayal. Even after tearful apologies are spoken and accepted, the natural tendency is to hold back a certain degree of affection or respect as a result of prior harm, regardless of how intensely and sincerely the other may repent. The Seventh Level dictates that not only should the relationship be restored to its earlier strength, it should even be improved as a result of the commitment to renewal.
God does not behave as human beings behave. After someone angers another, forgiveness is usually partial and they do not love each other as they once did. When a person sins and repents, however, God holds him in even higher regard. This is as it is written: “the place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand.” The reason is explained in the Talmud regarding the Hebrew letter he (ה). Why is it shaped like a covered patio? This to teach us that anyone who wishes to leave this world may leave.
God created the world created with the letter he. God created it with a wide bottom facing the side of evil and sin, a side that cannot be free of materialism, the desire to do evil, and imperfection. This is like a covered patio. There is no protective fence below, just a great opening to the side of evil. If one wishes to leave this world—there are so many exits for such a person, and one cannot turn without encountering sin and transgression, an opening to the outside. There is also an upper opening, such that if a person returns, he or she will be accepted. One might ask, “Let the person return the same way?” The answer is “this would not help.”
The penitent cannot rely on standard defenses against sin as the righteous may. Since the righteous have not sinned, a light fence is sufficient for them. A sinner, on the other hand, needs robust and multiple fences, since the light fence has already been destroyed. If one were to approach this fence, it would easily be destroyed again by the evil inclination. Such a person needs to maintain maximum distance. Therefore it would be insufficient for this person to re-enter the patio in the way he exited. He must climb up and enter via the small opening, and suffering and self-denial will seal up the gaps. For this reason, “the place where penitents stand” is higher because they did not enter via the portal of the righteous to be with the righteous. Rather, they mortified themselves and rose up to the higher opening, practicing self-denial and separating from sin so much more than the righteous. Therefore they rise up and stand in the level of the he, the fifth chamber of he that is in the Garden of Eden. This is called “the roof of the he.” The righteous, meanwhile, are in the opening of the he, the entrance to the patio. Thus when a person repents, this brings the he back into its place, returning the Shekhinah to God. This return is not characterized by the earlier love alone, rather a far deeper love. This is the meaning of “He will again show mercy,” that God will invest greater mercy in the Jewish people, healing them and drawing them closer.
So too should people behave with one another. One should not retain the hatred from an earlier anger. Rather, when a person sees that someone desires love, the level of mercy should be increased and love should be deepened to an even greater degree than before. One should say, “behold, this person is to me as a penitent, and even the completely righteous cannot stand in his or her company.” One should draw the penitent close with the greatest of affection, even more than one would lavish on the completely righteous, who never gave offense.
The Sixth Level begins with a deeply mystical passage in Ezekiel, set in the years immediately prior to the 6th century BCE destruction of the first Temple. God is angered by the sins of the Jewish people, and sends the archangel Gabriel to destroy them utterly, once and for all. Gabriel takes the glowing coals from a space called the galgal, located beneath the altar, and prepares to shower devastation upon the people. Gabriel is delayed in place for six years until the image of a human hand appears in the galgal, a symbolic representation of the acts of human kindness that the otherwise sinful Jews do for each other. With the appearance of this hand, God cancels Gabriel’s mission. God’s mindful delay to act from anger for six years, followed by a recollection of an unrelated kind deed, ultimately averts punishment.
Rabbi Cordovero goes on to describe how this level may be applied on a human scale, offering an exceptionally practical suggestion to promote forgiveness. When angered or frustrated by the behavior of another, one should focus on a single redeeming characteristic or activity of that person. This small technique places a momentary deterrent in the path of angry reaction, allowing forgiveness to take hold and ultimately blunt the full force of one’s wrath.
I have explained elsewhere that there is a certain chamber where angels are appointed to collect the acts of kindness that people perform in this world. When Justice denounces the Jewish people, these angels immediately draw forth a particular act of kindness, and God forgives the Jews. This is because He desires kindness. Even if they are guilty, if they nevertheless do kindness with one another, God forgives them. This is as it was during the destruction of the Temple. God told the angel Gabriel, go into the space of the galgal. Gabriel took burning coals to cast upon the Jewish people. Gabriel, the officer of justice and power, was given permission from God to take the forces of Justice from the galgal, located below the cherubim, forces derived from the fires of the altar, the executive power of justice through sovereignty. Justice demanded the destruction of absolutely everything, extinguishing the future of the Jewish people because they deserved annihilation. The passage continues, and Gabriel looked to the cherubim, and under their wings he saw the form of a human hand. God said to Gabriel: “They do kindness to one another. Even though they are undeserving, save them and allow a remnant to remain.” The reason is because of this Level, for He desires kindness. The Jewish people perform acts of kindness, and this stands to their merit, even if they are not worthy in some other aspect.
If so, then this Level is appropriate for people to emulate. Even if a person does harm and angers another, as long as the offender has some positive aspect—helping others, for example, or some other proper behavior—then that positive behavior should be sufficient to nullify one’s anger, achieve reconciliation, and even good will. A person should say, “It is enough for me that this person performs this one kindness.” This is especially true regarding one’s spouse, as the Rabbis of Blessed Memory taught, “it is enough for us that our spouses raise our children and rescue us from sin.” A person should say, “it is enough for me that this person did me a certain kindness, or did a certain kindness for someone else, or has a certain good quality.” In this manner a person may emulate for He desires kindness.
The prophet Zechariah portrays God as a shepherd with two staffs: one is called “pleasantness” (נאם) and the other is called “woundings” (חובלים). In his commentary on Date Palm of Devorah, Rabbi Epstein explains the metaphor: just as a shepherd may choose to lead sheep with gentle prodding, using the staff of pleasantness, he may also direct his flock by striking them, using the staff of woundings. So, too, God may elect to lead us by opening doors of opportunity and allowing us to advance on our own or by forcing us to follow a path against our will, using harsh penalties. Either way, as Rabbi Cordovero puts it, “God behaves with hardness or with softness, all for the benefit of the Jewish people.”
In the Fifth Level of Mercy, Rabbi Cordovero explains that God will use the staff of pleasantness even if a person is undeserving. Borrowing from an episode in Jewish history recorded in II Kings, Rabbi Cordovero shows that God expanded the boundaries of ancient Israel under King Jeroboam even though the people did not repent. Counterintuitively, God may use the staff of pleasantness if the staff of woundings will not achieve the desired results.
Applied to the human level, Date Palm of Devorah urges us to consider switching tactics when dealing with difficult people. Sometimes an act of unmitigated forgiveness is required, even though the circumstances seem to demand retaliation or retribution.
This is another Level. Even when a person holds fast to negative behavior, God does not hold fast to His anger, and even if God does hold fast, it is only temporary. Rather, God nullifies His wrath even if the person does not repent.
This is as we find with Jeroboam son of Joash, for whom God restored the boundaries of Israel, even though they were worshipping idols. God had mercy on them even when they did not return.
If so, why did God have mercy? It was because of this Level: God does not hold fast to His anger forever. On the contrary, God actively weakens His own anger, such that even when the sin persists, God does not punish. God waits and extends mercy–perhaps they will repent! This is the meaning of “not forever will He fight, and not forever will He exact retribution.”
God behaves with softness and with hardness, all for the benefit of the Jewish people.
This is an appropriate Level for people to use with one another. Even if one had the right to rebuke or punish another, or rebuke or punish children, and the suffering was deserved, this does not mean that the person should exercise that right excessively. A person should not hold fast to anger, even when it is deeply felt. Rather, a person should nullify it and not hold fast to this anger.
Even if this anger were permitted, as the Sages understand the verse, “when you see the donkey of the one you hate lying under its burden,” and they explain, “What kind of hatred is this? When a person is a lone witness to another’s transgression, the testimony is invalid, and therefore he hates him for his act.” Nevertheless the Torah teaches, “You shall surely help the other.” Abandon what is in your heart! It is a commandment to draw that person close with love, and perhaps this approach will help. This is literally the Level under discussion: “He does not hold fast to His anger forever.”
The Fourth Level of Mercy calls attention to the fundamental connectedness of humanity. The Jewish people in particular maintain a strong familial relationship which Rabbi Cordovero describes as a basic unity, as if each individual Jew constituted a limb of a single body. On a Kabbalistic level, the Jewish people derive their vitality from a single flow of energy, branching out into myriads upon myriads of individuals, but at their root they are essentially one entity, as will be discussed in the commentary below. Rabbi Cordovero’s treatment of the well-known Talmudic teaching (Sanhedrin 27b) that “all Jews are responsible for each other” may be understood in its literal sense: “all Jews are tied (ערב) to one another.” Date Palm of Devorah explores the meaning of this concept in the context of the creation of a minyan, or prayer quorum.
This familial connection carries two implications that are especially relevant to the concept of forgiveness. First, Rabbi Cordovero borrows a human metaphor to reveal the Kabbalistic secret of the suffering of the Divine Parent: just as a mother or father experiences pain when a child is anguished, so too does God suffer over our tribulations, so to speak. Second, Rabbi Cordovero extends the metaphor to the requisite behavior of siblings, who must carry greater levels of tolerance for each other than they would for strangers. This latter point brings his treatment of the Fourth Level to a conclusion with a discussion of the special level of forgiveness that Jews, as a family, must have for each other. The principles of this Level may be applied beyond the Jewish people as a whole, but Rabbi Cordovero directs his attention here to a specific audience.
Behold, God treats the Jewish people in this manner, saying “what shall I do with Israel, for they are my family, I share one flesh with them?” They are the marriage partner of God, who calls them “my daughter, my sister, my mother.” This is as the Rabbis explained, and as it is written: “Israel, the nation related to God,” literally related to God. They are God’s children.
This is the meaning of “the remnant of His inheritance,” a phrase that implies a familial relationship, and in end they are His inheritance. What does God say? “If I punish them, behold it pains me,” as it is written: “with all their pain—it is painful to Him.”
The word “to Him”[לו] is written with an alef [לא] as if to say that their pain reaches the highest mystery, and how much more so the “two faces,” which are essential to direction. Nevertheless we pronounce this word as if it were written with a vav, meaning it is painful to Him.
This is as it is written: “and His soul was grieved by the anguish of Israel,” because God does not tolerate their pain and insult, since they are the remnant of His inheritance.
So too should a person treat another. All Israel are related to each other, for their souls are all bound as one—each Jew has a portion of the other’s soul and vice versa. In this manner, “one cannot compare the act of many people performing a commandment [to one person acting alone]” because they are gathered together. This is what the Sages said regarding the first ten people who create a prayer quorum in the synagogue: even if a hundred people enter afterward, the first ten receive merit equivalent to them all, literally the merit of the hundred latecomers. This is because the first ten is contained within the hundred, which is ten times ten, a hundred. Each one of them is contained within the hundred, and if so, even if a hundred come, each of the first ten has the merit of the hundred. Also for this reason, all Jews are responsible for one another, because each of them literally possesses a portion of each other. When one of them sins, he harms himself as well as harming the portion of himself that resides in the other, since he is connected to his part that is contained within his fellow. They are related to each other.
Thus it is appropriate for a person to seek the benefit of one’s fellow, showing him generosity of spirit. He should consider his dignity as dear to him as his own, for they are literally a single entity. Because of this we are commanded, “and you will love your fellow as yourself.”
It is fitting that a person supports the fundamental goodness of another and not speak evil of him at all. One should not wish for anything that is inconsistent with what God desires for that person, neither his disgrace nor his suffering, for they are related to God. A person should not wish to see another’s downfall, nor suffering, nor any harm at all, and view the situation of as if he himself were immersed in the same suffering, or exalting in the same good fortune.
The Third Level of Mercy addresses the personal role that God plays in the process of forgiveness. Rather than relying on an angel or some other intermediary to dispense clemency, God personally provides the cleansing pardon.
The commentators on Date Palm of Devorah expand the Kabbalistic context of this level, answering the obvious question: why does God personally provide forgiveness, when in virtually all other aspects of the functioning of the Universe, God assigns myriads upon myriads of angels to carry out their delegated tasks? What is special about forgiveness, that it requires the personal intervention of the Master of the Universe?
The answer lies in very structure of the cosmos, and the nature of human power. According to the Kabbalah, the Universe is actually four distinct worlds, in descending order: Atsilut, Beriyah, Yetsirah, and Asiyah. Human beings, made in the image of God, have the power to create entities, for good or evil, as discussed above in the Second Level. These entities may be rooted in the three lower worlds, but they cannot penetrate the highest world of Atsilut. God’s angels do not have the power to destroy the negative energy beings created through human sin. Only God, who controls all the worlds, can remove these negative beings (or in some cases, even transform them into positive beings), and thus the task of forgiveness is undertaken by God alone.
Rabbi Cordovero briefly alludes to a powerful metaphor to illustrate the human application of the Second Level of forgiveness: a mother who washes a child that has soiled himself.
This is a great Level, for behold, forgiveness is not granted through a messenger, rather directly by God, as it is written: “for with You is forgiveness”. What is this forgiveness? God washes away the transgression, as it is written: “God washes away the filth of the children of Zion,” and it is written: “I will sprinkle upon you pure waters.” “Passing over transgression” indicates that God sends the cleansing water, and personally washes away sin.
A person must act in precisely this way. One should not say, “Should I be the one to fix whatever wrong this other person caused, or address whatever damage he incurred?” One should not speak in this manner! Behold, when a human being sins, God personally straightens what is bent and washes away the filth of the transgression.
From this we learn that one should be ashamed to return to his sin, for behold, the King personally washes the dirt off his clothing.
The second of the Thirteen Levels, “Who Bears Sin,” describes a degree of mercy that is even more profound than the previous Level. In the Second Level, Rabbi Cordovero outlines the metaphysical consequence of sin: with every hurtful act, a negative entity is created, a kind of energy debt that demands payment from its human creator. This being, called a “prosecutor” or “destroyer” in Rabbinic literature, affixes itself like a spiritual leech to the person who made it and draws its vitality from its human source. Were the destroyer to take the energy it needs to exist from the human who created it, the results would be disastrous.
The Second Level of Mercy demonstrates how God overlooks the fact that the prosecutor was born from an act of rebellion against God’s will, and directs the prosecutor to delay exacting its due from the human being. Just as we saw in the First Level of Mercy, in which God continued to provide energy to people despite their wrongful deeds, in the Second Level God even provides energy to the destroyers, stepping in and providing life-giving forbearance until the human being may address the debt of sin in an appropriate fashion.
The Kabbalistic content of Date Palm of Devorah deepens with the Second Level, yet Rabbi Cordovero nevertheless concludes with a discussion of the human applications of the principles inherent in “Who Bears Sin.”
This Level is greater than the First Level, for behold, a person does not transgress without creating a destroyer, as it is taught, “One who commits a specific transgression acquires a specific prosecutor.” The prosecutor stands before God and says, “this person made me!” Since no creature in the universe can exist without receiving energy from God, how can this destroyer be sustained when it too stands before God?
It would be reasonable for God to say, “I do not sustain destroyers—go to the one who created you, and take your sustenance from him!” The destroyer would then immediately go down and take the person’s life, or excise him, or otherwise punish him until that destructive force would be neutralized. God does not do this. Instead, God bears and tolerates the sin, just as God sustains the entire world. God continues to feed and sustain this destroyer until one of three things happen: either the sinner repents, thus destroying and nullifying the destroyer with his self-affliction, or the True Judge nullifies it through the suffering and death of the sinner, or the sinner goes to Gehinnom and there fulfills his debt. This is the meaning of what Cain said: “is my sin too great to bear?” The Rabbis explained this to mean, “You tolerate the entire world,” meaning feeding and sustaining Creation. “Is my sin so heavy, that You cannot bear it?” Meaning, can You not sustain my sin as well, until I may repent and repair the damage?
Thus this is a great Level of tolerance, that God feeds and sustains the evil creature that the sinner created until the sinner repents.
A person should learn the necessity of tolerance, enduring offense from others and whatever harm they caused. Even when the harm persists, one should be patient and allow a person to repair the damage or wait until it resolves of its own accord, and so on.
Rabbi Cordovero’s discussion of the Thirteen Levels of Mercy begins with an awesome depiction of human sin from God’s perspective.
Given that all power in the Universe has God at its source, even the energy used by human beings in their affairs, it follows that when a person transgresses God’s will, he or she inevitably makes use of that very same Divine vitality to rebel against the One who provided it. By analogy, this is like a servant who receives a walking stick from his employer with instructions to undertake a journey, and the servant immediately uses the walking stick to beat his master. What a grievous insult! Nevertheless, God endures this insult, and continues to provide life-sustaining energy to human beings, even when they misdirect that energy to defy God’s will.
The first of the Thirteen Levels of Mercy is taken from the beginning of Micah 7:18: Who is like You, God. Rabbi Cordovero outlines the parameters of the first Level, and then indicates some ways in which human beings may emulate the Divine forgiveness that continues to provide life-sustaining energy even when we transgress.
This Level demonstrates that God is a King who endures insult to a degree that cannot be imagined. Behold, without doubt nothing is hidden from God’s awareness, and there is no moment when a human being is not nourished and sustained by the supernal power that descends from above. Therefore a person never sins against God without simultaneously receiving a sustaining flow of energy from God at the very moment of sin, animating the limbs. Despite the fact that the person uses this energy to sin, God does not withhold it in the least. Rather, God endures this insult and continues to provide the animating life force, even though the person abuses this power to sin, to rebel, and to attempt to anger God. Still, God endures the insult.
One cannot say that God does not have the power to withhold this energy from a person, Heaven forbid. God has the power to shrivel a person’s hands and feet with a single word, as God did with Jeroboam (Kings I 13:4). Despite the fact that God has the power to reverse the flow of energy, saying, “Since you sin against Me—sin with your own power and not Mine,” God nevertheless does not withhold this benefit; rather, God endures the insult and continues to send the flow of power, providing the person with God’s goodness. Behold, this is a level of insult and tolerance that cannot be described.
This is why the ministering angels refer to God as the Insulted King. This is the meaning of “Who is God like You.” You are a God of kindness and generosity, a God with the power to take vengeance and take back what is Yours, yet You show tolerance to insult until the person repents.
Behold, this is a Level that one must emulate, meaning: tolerance. We must tolerate insult even to this degree and not retract the benefits we give to others.
New for the Season of Repentance: a translation and modern commentary on Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s classic of Jewish ethics, the Date Palm of Devorah (Tomer Devorah). Learn the Thirteen Levels of Mercy and discover how to forgive others (and yourself). Please visit http://www.jewishhistorylectures.org and click on “The Kabbalah of Forgiveness” for excerpts and videos. Publication date: Rosh Hodesh Elul (August 26-27, 2014).