Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

“And Hashem Shall Cleanse, Not Cleanse”


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem taught Moshe the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Shemot 34: 6-7). Although the pasuk ends with Hashem remembering the sins of the fathers for four generations, our custom is, when reading these p’sukim on fast days, to have the congregation read the attributes out loud but stop between the words "v’nakeh" (He will clease) and "lo yenakeh" (He will not cleanse). This implies that the last attribute of mercy is v’nakeh. We will try to investigate this week what the opinions of Chazal and the early commentators are on this matter.
The gemara (Shvuot 39a) seems to be in line with our practice. Rabbi Elazar is troubled by the apparent contradiction on whether Hashem does or does not cleanse, and says that He does cleanse those who repent and does not cleanse those who do not repent. In the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:6) we are told that specifically if one sinned by saying Hashem’s Name in vain, he is not cleansed even if he repents. Rabbi Akiva (Sifrei Zuta 6) also says that the cleansing is possible only at certain times, saying that He cleanses in matters between man and Hashem but not in matters between man and his fellow man.
However, in aggadic midrash (Vayikra Rabba, Emor 29), we see that even lo yenakeh can be seen as a matter of mercy. The midrash says that lo anakecha (as found in Yirmiyah 30:11) refers to not having Bnei Yisrael cease, as Hashem will suffice with yisurin (afflictions) in this world so that they can prosper in the world to come. The Meiri (Rosh Hashana 17a) cites the explanation that nakeh lo yenakeh is one idea, that Hashem will not wipe the people out. He is bothered by the fact that we do not have the congregation read the whole pasuk, as according to this explanation it is all a matter of mercy. Rashi (1st explanation) says that it is a little of both, in that Hashem will not totally wipe the slate clean but on the other hand will give punishment only in small installments.
The Abarbanel sees it as two different but related attributes. If one has many virtues but also some sins, Hashem will look at the majority and cleanse the sins. On the other hand, if one has mainly sins, Hashem will not use the sins as a reason to destroy the person. In other words, the same root word is being used with two different meanings even though the two appearances are found in direct succession. Once it means cleansing and once it means [not] uprooting.
The Tzitz Eliezer (XII, 33) cites a beautiful idea from the Ari in regard to our pasuk, linking it to a famous mishna in Avot: "Do not look at the קנקן but at what is in it." The words נקה and ינקה both have the letters קנ and besides that have the letters that spell out Hashem’s Name of Mercy. Thus we say not to look at the קנקן but at Hashem’s Name of Mercy that accompanies it.
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