Do Before Me Like This Order
After the Eigel haZahav, Moshe asked to see Hashem’s Glory, and Hashem said a human couldn’t, but to hide in a cleft in the rock of Har Sinai and Hashem would reveal something about Himself to Moshe . ” וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר ה֥׳ ׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ — Hashem “passed before” him and proclaimed the 13 Middos haRachamim — “Attributes” of how we experience Divine Mercy.
The gemara (Rosh haShanah 17b) comments on these words by providing this depiction:
א”ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב”ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם
Rabbi Yochanan said: If it hadn’t been written in the scripture, it would be impossible to say this. It comes to teach that HQBH wrapped himself like a chazan, and showed Moshe an order of prayer.
He said to him: Any time Israel is sinning, they should do before me like this order, and I will forgive them.
Because of the depiction of Hashem enveloped in a tallis, so to speak, and teaching an order or prayer, it is natural to read the closing phrase as a promise about these words. If we would just say the 13 middos, presumably — and mean it — Hashem promises to forgive us.
However, the Benei Yehohada (and others) note the change in verb. Hashem actually tells Moshe “ya’asu lefanai — they should do before Me.” It is not enough to speak Hashem’s 13 Middos haRachamim, even with deep intent. We have to internalize them and emulate Hashem, to embody these aspects of compassion and empathy ourselves.
Given this, how do we unpack the rest of the metaphor? Why is Hashem described as wrapping in a “tallis” like a shaliach tzibbur, a chazan appointed by the congregation?
Rabbi Simlai is the one in the gemara (Makkos 23b) who tells us that there are 613 mitzvos, and then shows how various nevi’im simplified the big picture by grouping them under fewer and fewer principles. Among the summaries of all of halakhah that he lists is a famous quote from Mikhah (6:8):
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה֞׳ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃
Man! He told you what is good and what Hashem expects of you: only (1) to do justice, (2) the love of kindness, and (3) and to walk modestly with your G-d.
Rabbi Simlai continues by explaining each of these clauses. The first two are more obvious — justice and lovingkindess. The third —
זה הוצאת המת והכנסת כלה והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה דברים שאין דרכן לעשותן בצנעא אמרה תורה והצנע לכת דברים שדרכן לעשותן בצנעא על אחת כמה וכמה
this is taking the dead out [for taharah and burial] and bringing the bride in [to her wedding].
And aren’t these things a qal vachomer (a fortiori): If things [like helping someone with burial or with making a wedding] which are not normally done in privacy, the Torah tells us “go modestly”, all the more so things which are normally done in privacy should!
Emulating Hashem has to be done with modesty. Even when called into the spotlight to serve the community, the And that too is modeled by Hashem in our first gemara. When He details to Moshe the middos we are to emulate. He shows Himself “wrapped in a tallis, like a shaliach tzibbur.”