One Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the Kohen Gadol, entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense offering, when he saw a vision of Hashem sitting on His throne of glory.
“Yishmael, my son, bless Me,” He said.
Yishmael responded, “May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger and that Your mercy overpower Your other attributes and that You behave with Your children with the attribute of mercy and treat them with leniency.”
His vision then concluded with the Almighty nodding His approval to the blessing.
Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Yossi: How do we know that the Holy One blessed be He prays? As the verse [Isaiah 56:7] states, “And I shall bring them to My holy mountain and gladden them in the house of My prayer.” Since it does not say, ‘their prayer,’ rather, ‘My prayer,’ we deduce that the Holy One blessed be He prays.
What does He pray? Rav Zutra bar Tuvia quoted Rav: May it be My will that My mercies conquer My anger and that My mercies overpower My other attributes and that I attend to My children with the attribute of mercy and that I deal with them leniently.
Sometimes we disappoint ourselves with our religious behaviour. We don’t measure up to our own self-expectations. You know you could have done better. You should have done better. And so you conclude that Hashem must be even more disappointed. That kind of attitude leads to a downward spiral where you become so obsessed with your failures that your entire life begins to stagnate.
Stop beating yourself up. The Almighty’s love for you is greater than the love any mortal parent has for their child! As Rav teaches, He is forever reminding Himself – so to speak – that His mercy must rise above everything else. Anything you did, He has long since forgiven you. It’s time to pull your socks up and face a bright future! Any lingering feelings of self-doubt are the machinations of the yetzer hara who doesn’t want you to get up and move on to wonderful accomplishments in life!
But what’s a little strange about our Gemara is the notion of Hashem praying. Who’s He praying to? Himself? Is He simply reminding Himself? Does that constitute prayer? Obviously, Hashem doesn’t need to remind Himself of anything. And He doesn’t need to pray. What is the message of the Gemara?
To pray in Hebrew is ‘lehitpalel,’ which is a reflexive verb form. Why? Our job in this world is to be imitatio Dei – we must strive to emulate G-d. When we pray, we’re talking to Hashem. But at the same time, it’s almost as if we’re holding a mirror up and asking ourselves how we’re doing in terms of our duty to be children of the Divine.
And so the Gemara is saying that if you want Hashem to have mercy upon you, first you need to hold up that mirror and ask how you’re judging others. Sure, they could have done a little better by you. But had you acted the way they did, don’t you think you’d want a little leniency? Here’s the deal: if you stop judging others so strictly and start cutting them a little slack, the Almighty will cut you some slack and shower you with His mercy!
Did Yishmael the Kohen Gadol see the Almighty nodding to him? Of course not. Not even Moshe Rabbeinu was able to see Hashem’s face, “for no man can see My face and live.” Nodding to another person implies that the two of you are in agreement. The Divine nod was a symbol of Yishmael’s understanding that the outpouring of mercy was to begin with him. ‘If we’re on the same page,’ G-d responded, so to speak, ‘you have my guarantee that I too will shower upon you My mercy and compassion.’
Don’t ever allow your yetzer hara to convince you to get bogged down because you believe you’re stuck spiritually. You’re never stuck – Hashem’s mercies are boundless! May you treat others with abundant mercy and rest assured that the Almighty will forever shower His mercy upon you!