The Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy
Shiur #08: Notzer Chesed La-alafim
By Rav Ezra Bick
The ninth of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is notzer chesed la-alafim, generally translated as, “preserves kindness for thousands [of generations].” In attempting to understand this attribute, it behooves us to explain the precise meaning of all three terms – “notzer,” “chesed” and “alafim.” Let us begin with the word notzer, whose meaning, I believe, holds the key to understanding the phrase “chesed la-alafim,” as well.
Rashi, in his Torah commentary, explains, “Notzer chesed – that which the person performed before Him.” Rashi’s primary intent here is to explain that the term chesed in this phrase refers not to the kindness of the Almighty, but rather the “kindness” of the human being. A person performs kindness, and God “preserves” it.
The simple and widely accepted interpretation is that this phrase refers to something resembling zekhut avot (the merits of our ancestors). In the past, and even in the distant past, people performed kindness, and the Almighty remembers and keeps that kindness for thousands of generations on behalf of their descendants. Seforno, for example, comments on this verse, “He keeps the parents’ merit on behalf of the children.” If so, then notzer chesed la-alafiim parallels the phrase recited toward the beginning of the amida prayer, “zokher chasdei avot u-meivi go’el li-vnei veneihem” (“He remembers the kindnesses of the fathers, and brings redemption to their descendants”).
It seems to me, however, that a distinction exists between zekhira (“remembering”) and shemira (“watching” or “preserving”). Zekhira relates to events of the past, which are no longer present and exist only in one’s memory. If I “preserve” something, however, I do not have to remember it, because it is preserved in the present. Thus, zekhira relates to the past, whereas shemira involves the present.
Let us now proceed from netzira to the term chesed. If this refers to the virtuous acts of our forefathers, in the merit of which we ask forgiveness, why do we speak only of chesed, and not of their other meritorious deeds? While it is true that, at least with regard to Avraham, we often speak of his piety in terms of his chesed, the good deeds of the patriarchs certainly include more than generous acts of kindness.
I would therefore suggest that the term notzer chesed means something different than zokher chesed.
The concept of zekhut avot parallels the notion of “pokeid avon avot” – that God brings punishment for the parents’ wrongdoing upon their descendants. Despite the difficulty we sense in this regard, there is logic in the idea that children are rewarded or punished on account of their forefathers’ conduct. Consider the case of a person who has merit and passes away before he could be properly rewarded. It would make sense to pay him for his deeds by assisting his children. We remember the “chesed avot” and treat the children well in their father’s merit. I think we all intuitively sense that this approach is just, even if we simultaneously cannot help but wonder why a person should deserve special treatment just because he had a righteous father. The Gemara resolves this problem by adding a condition, namely, that the children must follow the parents’ mode of conduct in order to receive the parents’ reward. Correspondingly, the notion of “pokeid avon avot” appears, at first glance, to contradict the admonition, “Fathers shall not die on account of sons, and sons shall not die on account of their fathers” (Devarim 24:16). The Gemara explains that “pokeid avon avot” applies when the children continue their parents’ sinful behavior. These verses deal with judgment and punishment, and it therefore follows that this notion is grounded in the logic of strict justice. If so, then with regard to the converse situation of merit and reward, too, there is a similar logic: one who follows his parents’ model of virtue benefits from their merit, but not if he turns his back on his parents’ example. The attribute of justice agrees that a child who follows his parents’ virtuous ways should reap some of the benefits of their merits. I think that this does not refer to a son who is righteous exactly like his father, but rather that he “continues” the father’s way – meaning, the guidance he received from his father continues to steer him, even if he stumbles on one occasion or another. In any event, this is logical, and so long as he remains loyal to his parents’ legacy, the attribute of justice consents to his reaping the benefits of their reward.
But here, in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, we find ourselves in a situation where the attribute of justice objects and demands punishment. By the time we’ve come to the ninth attribute of mercy, even the majority of God’s attributes of kindness and compassion has been insufficient to save the sinner. Necessarily, then, we are not speaking here of zekhut avot, of God’s remembering the merit of our ancestors. We deal here not with zekhira, but rather with netzira. This distinction is also indicated by its extent – “notzer chesed la-alafim.” The remembering of the parents’ meritorious deeds works through the system of justice, and it therefore has a limit, based upon the amount of merits the parents had amassed. Justice by definition is limited to the just and proper amount of reward. The attribute of notzer chesed la-alafim, however, has no limit; it extends for “thousands” of generations. This signifies that we are not dealing here with the allocation of reward in accordance with the standards of strict justice.
In my view, therefore, the attribute of notzer chesed does not involve payment or reward. There is a notion of paying a child the debt owed to the parent, and the Almighty assuredly follows this system. But that is justice, not kindness. In the context of the Thirteen Attributes, we speak of kindness, and we must therefore explain that this attribute gives the child more than he or his parent deserves.
A good deed warrants reward. Even after the act is completed, there is an obligation of reward, that the debt be repaid. This obligation is sustained through memory: “All your deeds are inscribed in the book, and the Employer can be trusted to pay your reward.” But the repercussions of a good deed extend beyond the reward. It is not merely something that was done in accordance with the Employer’s will thus requiring Him to pay. A good deed is inherently good; it means the creation of a situation of goodness, of value, of sanctity, and increasing the Shekhina’s manifestation in the world, as we explained on numerous occasions in this series. What happens to that goodness, to the metaphysical reality of value and worth, after the deed is completed? Where does it go? This question becomes particularly vexing when we bear in mind that the value of an act lies not in the result but rather in the movement, in the ascent, the process of improvement and drawing closer to perfection. If the divine image and chariot of the Shekhina are sustained through the person’s ascent toward perfection, then the moment he stops moving, nothing remains. Even if we say – and this would be a reasonable assertion – that a person’s actions leave an imprint upon his soul and character, and we are all the product of our actions and experiences, still, this result expires once a person dies. The Rishonim all made a point of explaining that the reward in the next world is not really a reward, repayment, but rather an acquired reality. A good person earns a spiritual existence according to his capabilities, be it in terms of intellect (the Rambam), his love of God (Rav Chasdai Crescas), or spiritual attachment (Rav Yehuda Halevi). Goodness, the true creation, is imprinted upon the person’s soul, and therefore once he passes on, nothing in the world remains of that goodness. Undoubtedly, that goodness, the worth of his life, cannot be transferred to somebody else – not even to his child, and not even to his child who follows his ways. As mentioned, I wonder if the goodness is preserved even during one’s lifetime, since I am assuming that the value of life lies not in the results of one’s progress, but rather in the progress itself. There is a famous story attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov that concludes with the sentence, “All of life in the World To Come is going from one level to the next, from one achievement to the next, forever.” One who stops is like a corpse, a stone. Remembering will not help to preserve the worth of one’s deeds. Remembering suffices to obligate payment for a good deed, but cannot preserve the actual worth of the good deed, of the progress toward God. If I gave charity to a poor person, then the “Employer” can be trusted to pay me my due reward, even many years later. The merit assuredly remains. But the goodness itself – what of it remains even a year after the act? The money is already gone, and the poor man himself may no longer be alive. What is left from that kindness?
Ever since my youth, a sentence written by a French poet reverberates in my head: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” There is undoubtedly an element of age in the problem that troubles me. Youngsters do not generally look back longingly at lost time, but rather continue to flow onward. But at a certain age, we all begin to sense the loss of time, and begin wondering, “Where are those lovely moments?” “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Psychologists might classify this feeling as nothing more than nostalgia, but metaphysically, this is a real question. What happens to the goodness that a person creates, if it all depends on time, and time passes? The Ibn Ezra expressed this question very succinctly in a famous passage: “The past is gone, the future is not yet, and the present is like the blink of an eye.” The past is gone, it no longer exists. Does the goodness, the sanctity that we have created, disappear, and leave behind only a memory? Where is that moment a year ago on Yom Kippur when I rose to higher levels of closeness with God? Is the memory of that moment all that is left?
The answer to this question is chesed – the divine attribute of notzer chesed la-alafim. God keeps and preserves the kindness for thousands of generations; he maintains it in a reality beyond the reality of progress, which changes every instant. Note Rashi’s formulation in the comment cited earlier: “Notzer chesed – that which the person performed before Him.” What does Rashi mean by, “before Him”? The kindness a person performed is offered to God like a sacrifice, it is presented before Him, and God therefore keeps it in His reality, which is eternal and beyond time. As I explained many times in discussing the previous attributes, the goodness we create in the world is dependent upon time. On the one hand, this dependence lends it its special value, but on the other hand, it underlies its temporary nature, and allows it to be lost. In our world, this value exists only as part of the process. But in the divine reality, it exists in its absolute form, beyond time. Our emet, truth, which grows and develops, is the same as the absolute truth which constitutes the “insignia “of the Almighty. Not only does our truth reflect the divine truth, albeit in a partial, deficient manner, but that divine truth keeps and binds within it the growth of our truth. “Truth shall grow from the ground” is the verse that sustains “Let truth rise from the ground.” The good we perform is significant because it is, indeed, true goodness, divine goodness, and is identical to the Shekhina’s presence in the world. And where is that goodness? If I did a good deed, it disappears upon the completion of that deed. But if I created a reality of Shekhina in the world, it still exists in God’s reality, which exists beyond time. The past is gone – in our world; in God’s world, the past, present and future are combined together into a single reality. “Hashem Melekh, Hashem malakh, Hashem yimlokh le-olam va-ed” (“The Lord is King, the Lord has reigned, the Lord shall reign for all eternity”).
These are difficult concepts to understand, and require further clarification, which I will now attempt to provide.
The Ramban presents two interpretations of the word notzer. He first defines it as synonymous with shomer (“keep” or “preserve”), and then suggests that it means “growth,” as in the phrase, “ve-neitzer mi-sharashav yifreh” (“and a sprout shall blossom from its roots” – Yeshayahu 11:1). According to the Ramban’s second interpretation, notzer means not “preserve,” but rather “makes grow.” God, according to this approach, makes chesed grow for thousands of generations.
This second approach does not contradict the first, but rather explains it. The chesed that a person performs is itself a living entity. What gives it life is the movement that I made, my rising from one level to another. The performance of a mitzva is the planting of a seed, a plant. If I stop watering it, if I stop ascending further, then only a memory will remain of that seed that I planted. However, because of God’s kindness, this is not what happens. God makes the kindness grow – He makes it grow for thousands of generations. The actual result of my actions have no worth from the perspective of the supreme value, because it is worth less than the perfect, absolute, eternal value. However, as we have explained, the movement made toward perfection is deemed equivalent to the perfect value, even if, quantitatively speaking, it is worth less. God values the movement itself, the ascent, making that which is deficient less deficient. The moment I have stopped moving forward, it would appear that there is nothing; and certainly when a person dies, nothing should remain. But God is notzer chesed – He preserves the good deed and makes it grow. God looks upon us from a dynamic, process-oriented perspective, and this is precisely what gives our existence value in His eyes. God’s existence beyond time connects the past with the present and preserves the entire process. At any given moment, you are worth only what you are actually worth in the present; but if we can preserve the entire process, and see you not as a static creature at that moment, but rather as a complete stream of past leading to the future, then your value is infinite; you have the value of kedusha, Shekhina, and a kind of perfection (in that you are in a process leading toward perfection). This is what notzer chesed la-alafim means.
This is true of individuals, and this is true of the life of Am Yisrael as a nation, throughout the generations. If I, a tiny midget, can stand on the shoulders of a giant and manage to progress one millimeter, to enlarge the structure by a millimeter, then I continue the process and my value thus equals that of the entire process. The millimeter itself is not worth much, but the progress is worth eternity, because it is preserved in God’s reality. I have created something that had not yet existed in the world. This is what the Ramban calls “makes kindness grow.” A block of wood is not worth all that much, but a tree that lives and grows has immense value, even if at the moment it is a tiny sapling.
The two interpretations offered by the Ramban are essentially one and the same. What makes our chesed grow? The shemira – the fact that God “preserves” it. What gives eternal life to man’s actions, and allows them to grow, is the connection of the past to the present (and the future) to form a single process. God preserves the past so that it remains intact and connects it with the future, such that instead of a static piece of wood, a live, growing plant is preserved. The preservation of the past, as opposed to just its memory, transforms the realities of past, present and future into a single reality, which constitutes a qualitative change, and not merely a quantitative one. We speak not of the merit of the past, but rather of the merit which exists in the present, as a result of the person’s being part of a living, developing process. The entire process is seen as a single, all-inclusive present. Therefore, even if there is a perfect balance between one’s merits and demerits, from the perspective of notzer chesed they are not equal at all, because this attribute views the merits as part of an infinite framework of progress toward perfection.
Now that we have explained the meaning of the term notzer, let us proceed to the other words in this phrase. Rashi explains “alafim” to mean two thousand. The Midrash Ha-gadol, however, comments, “It does not say, ‘For a thousand generations,’ but rather, ‘for thousands’ – for thousands of thousands of generations.” The explanation offered by the Midrash Ha-gadol seems closer to the straightforward reading of the phrase. Alafim refers to an infinite period of time. In Biblical style, infinite time is described by a large number, beyond what people can normally perceive. We deal here not with the multiplication of the chesed, but rather with a fundamentally different kind of calculation. Measuring the kindness itself in present, quantitative terms will yield a certain weight. But the preservation and “growth” of the chesed, from the perspective of growth and development, gives it inestimable value, because this is the value of moving closer to perfection, which, in our world, is perfection itself. This is the value of the Shekhina. From this perspective, God does not simply turn the scales in favor of the side of merit, but rather decides definitively that the merits are worth “thousands of thousands.”
This will also explain, I believe, why the verse chooses specifically the term “chesed.” As mentioned, this attribute does not refer simply to good deeds, which warrant reward and payment. “Chesed” expresses the growth, giving to the other. The Shekhina’s presence in the world is based upon the chesed we and our forefathers perform, as it were, for the Shekhina, for it is a living, growing action, an act of growth. Adding onto something of value is called chesed, and this is what creates this attribute. The kindnesses are the stem that continues to grow as a result of God’s preservation and nurturing.
The movement that began during the lives of the patriarchs has not yet ended. Even if temporarily the process is at rest, and even if, in the lives of individuals, the process regresses, from a broader perspective, which sees from the lives of the patriarchs to this very day, and even beyond, the overall direction is one of progress, of growth, and hence a direction toward Shekhina and perfection. So long as I remain part of this process and have yet to abandon it, if, in an overall sense, my life is devoted to continually drawing close to the Almighty and sanctifying His Name in the world, then yesterday’s kindness still exists today, and still retains its value. The value of progress is not merely the value of my life as an individual, but rather my value as part of the history of Am Yisrael, the value of the life of a nation. This value therefore begins with the kindnesses of the patriarchs, and extends for “thousands,” for thousands upon thousands of generations, to me and onward to future generations. Avraham Avinu did not stay in one place, but rather traveled and journeyed from one place to the next, and this movement continues in his descendants, his students – not the actions he performed, but rather the path, the journeying, the “lekh lekha,” the first command he received and the command which defines the rest of his life – and ours.
As in previous shiurim, we will conclude with the relevant message that emerges regarding the proper mindset when praying the Thirteen Attributes. When we recite, “notzer chesed la-alafim,” we must understand and commit ourselves to join the generational chain, and sense that we continue the project begun by our patriarchs. This is not just using our “connections,” but rather continuation. This means not simply preserving the values of our patriarchs, but advancing them, continuing the forward movement and progress. One who appeals to the attribute of notzer chesed la-alafim claims to be not a fixed, good reality, but rather a reality which might be bad, but which improves, and this improvement has value as part of the great progression that encompasses all of human history.
 See our previous shiur, which discussed the attribute of emet.
 See Rashi’s comments to Makot 23a, where he explains that according to the simple reading of the verse, la-alafiim refers to the end of all the generations, as opposed to Chazal’s Midrashic reading, which interprets it to mean two thousand.