Commentary for Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

21 Nov

This week’s Torah reading is a special reading for when Shabbat coincides with Chol Hamo’ed (the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot). This reading picks up right after the sin of the golden calf, with Moses now pleading with God for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites. God relents and decides not to destroy the Israelites, and as a bonus, teaches Moses the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy located in Exodus 34: 6-7.   This passage contains names and descriptions of God that refer to and are meant to hopefully invoke God’s compassion, and is recited during the course of services on any holiday that does not fall on Shabbat and on any day a fast is observed, even if that day is Shabbat. It is best-known for it’s prominent placement in the Yom Kippur service, which begs the question why we read this passage from the Torah now, on a Shabbat when no fast is being observed, instead of last week on Yom Kippur, where it fits in so perfectly with the theme of the day.


The Gemarah records a midrash from Rabbi Yochanan on Rosh Hashanah 17b that takes place during this Torah reading. In this midrash Moses believes that the Israelites’ sin was so grave that there is no chance that God will take mercy on them and not obliterate them, but he is willing to advocate on their behalf anyway. When God appears to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7 and teaches him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, God tells Moses, “whenever Israel sins, let them recite this in its proper order and I will forgive them.”


Moses was certain that all hope was lost but he continued to advocate for the Israelites anyway, and because the Israelites were truly sincere in their repentance, God showed them mercy and pardoned them. During the concluding service of Yom Kippur we sing of the “gates of repentance” closing, but now, less than two weeks later, we read this parshah to teach us that if our repentance is sincere, those gates are never truly closed.

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