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The Lessons of Selichot

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Levush notes that the order of the Selichot service, in both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi communities, parallels the structure of the daily prayer service. It opens with Ashrei followed by Kaddish, ends with Nefillat Apayim and Kaddish Titkabel, and what we recite in the middle resembles the Shemoneh Esrei (Amida) prayer.

The two most central and important parts of the section that resembles the Amida are the Thirteen Attributes and the Viddui (confession). Chazal call the Thirteen Attributes a "seder tefilla" (prayer service):

"'And God passed before his (Moshe's) face and he called out…' - R. Yohanan taught: Were it not for the fact that this is written in the Torah, it would be impossible to say it. This teaches us that the Holy One wrapped Himself like a 'shaliach tzibbur' (prayer leader) and demonstrated to Moshe the prayer service. He said to him, 'Whenever the Israelites sin, let them perform before Me a service like this one, and I will forgive them.'" (Rosh Ha-shana 17b)

The Viddui service, of course, is related to teshuva (repentance) and represents the crux of these days of mercy and forgiveness.

The question is, what is unique in the Selichot service? After all, many people recite the Thirteen Attributes and Viddui at least twice every week, and some even recite them every day at both Shacharit and Mincha. The simplest answer to this question is that in fact there is no innovation here; rather, what is new is the addition of this prayer service at night, in the spirit of the verse, "Arise, sing out in the night" (Eikha 2:19). This conclusion would be correct with relation to the Selichot service of all communities. But a closer look at the Ashkenazi formulation of Selichot reveals a unique aspect that is absent from the daily prayer service.

After Ashrei and half-Kaddish, the Selichot service opens with a brief prayer that serves as a sort of introduction: "Yours, God, is charity… for You hear prayer." Thereafter, according to Ashkenazi custom, we recite about fifty verses that speak of the loftiness and greatness of God. At first there are verses speaking of prostration before Him, and then there are dozens of verses describing His greatness, His might and His transcendence, His greatness that finds expression in all of creation, and our desire to draw close to Him by calling on all of creation, "Come, let us sing to God; let us call out to the Rock of our salvation!"

What is the connection between these verses and the Selichot service? The Rambam, in the introduction to Hilkhot Teshuva, teaches that it is a positive commandment "that a sinner should turn back from his sin and repent before God with a confession." In law 1 he writes,

"With regard to all the precepts of the Torah, positive or negative commands - whenever a person transgresses one of them, either intentionally or unintentionally, and repents and turns away from his sin, it is his duty to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is said, 'When a man or a woman shall commit any sin ... they shall confess their sin which they have committed' (Bemidbar 5:67) - this refers to verbal confession, and this confession is a positive commandment. How is one to confess? He says, 'Please, God - I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have committed evil before You; I have done such-and-such, and behold, I regret and am ashamed of my deeds, and I will never repeat this thing.' This is the crux of viddui." (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1)

The Rambam is teaching us something new - that any confession a person recites must open with, "Please, God" (Ana Hashem). The Kohen Gadol opens each of the three confessions that he recites on Yom Kippur with these words, as we learn from the Mishna (Yoma 35b):

"And this is what he would say: Please, God - I have transgressed and performed evil and sinned before You, I and my household; Please, God - forgive the transgressions and the evil and the sins that I have performed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my household, as it is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant: 'For on this day He shall forgive…;' and they answer after him: Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever."

From the Mishna and Gemara we learn only that the Kohen Gadol had to use the words, "Ana Hashem." However, the Rambam maintains that, in accordance with the definition of the mitzva - "to confess BEFORE GOD," and to "turn back from his sin and repent BEFORE GOD with a confession" - every person's confession should open with the words, "Please, God."

But in practice we do not follow this ruling, and even the Rambam (3:8) states,

"The confession that is customary among all of Israel is, 'But we have sinned...'"

So too, with regard to confession recited over a sacrifice, the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Ma'aseh Ha-korbanot 3:15),

"How does one confess? He says, 'I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have performed evil...'"

He makes no mention here of the opening formulation, "Please, God."

The reason, it seems, is based on the fear that one may commit the sin mentioned in the viddui of Yom Kippur: "For the sin that we have sinned before You in our verbal confession." Indeed, the Rambam writes (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:3):

"Anyone who confesses verbally without having resolved in his heart to abandon his sin is like someone who immerses himself in a mikveh while holding an insect in his hand."

In such an instance a person would be guilty of uttering God's name in vain, and for this reason our Sages cancelled the requirement to open the viddui service with the words, "Please, God."

However, though the use of this expression was cancelled, its import remains valid. The mitzva of teshuva and the confession that accompanies it must be performed with a sense of the Divine presence. The wholeness of the mitzva is dependent on one's complete feeling of being surrounded by God.

Of all the aspects of Godliness, what kind of "Divine presence" are we referring to here? The everyday perception of Godliness among regular people like ourselves is generally rather limited, relating mainly to one aspect: the way in which God relates towards us, as individuals or as a collective unit. He may provide assistance and support, healing, salvation and elevation or - heaven forbid - bring humiliation, punishment, suffering and a curtailment of our mortal lives.

It is therefore natural that one's sense of Divine presence is generally based upon this perception and relates to this aspect of Godliness. Emphasizing this aspect, we start our Selichot with a request for mercy: "Yours, God, is charity… for You hear prayer."

But a sense of God's presence that is limited to this aspect exclusively is insufficient. The fact that the Kohen Gadol, in his viddui on Yom Kippur, pronounces God's most holy and awesome Name teaches that the sense of God's presence at the time of the viddui recitation must be accompanied by a sense of God's loftiness, splendor, greatness and awesomeness, to the extent that our limited human imagination is able to portray it. And all of this while bowing and prostrating oneself before Him - i.e., complete self-nullification before the glory of His holiness, at His feet, as it were.

It is this sense of the Divine presence, at this level, that the Ashkenazi sages sought to emphasize in establishing these verses as part of the Selichot service.

The Torah teaches us that when God revealed Himself before Am Yisrael at Har Sinai,

"All the people saw the thunder and the lightening, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they were shaken and stood at a distance. And they said to Moshe, 'You speak to us, and we will hear; let God not speak to us lest we die.' And Moshe said to the people, 'Do not be afraid, for God has come in order to test you, and in order that His fear be upon you, so that you will not sin.'" (Shemot 20:15-17)

Chazal teach (Nedarim 20a): "'In orderthat His fear be upon you, so that you will not sin' - this is shame." When a person senses the nearness of God and he reviews his deeds, he is filled with shame, as it is written (Ezra 9:6), "My God, I am ashamed and confounded to lift my face towards You." One can imagine no other reaction. A feeling of shame washes over a person, and from the depths of his heart he turns to God and declares, "Yours, God, is charity - and ours is shame."

In reciting these verses that were established by the Ashkenazi sages as part of the Selichot service, we open by declaring our readiness to prostrate ourselves before God. By doing so we express our self-nullification before the splendor of God's greatness - intellectually, emotionally and existentially. This self-nullification does not paralyze us; it elevates us through amazement at His wonders and His rulership of the entire universe, to the point where we feel the need to address all of creation with the call, "Come, let us sing to God, let us call out to the Rock of our salvation" (Tehillim 95:1).

But after all this we find ourselves only at the entrance to the heavenly gates. We have not yet achieved awareness of a most lofty and important aspect of Godliness. This aspect is the knowledge of God's ways, the ultimate prayer of Moshe Rabbeinu: "Please teach me Your ways" (Shemot 33:13). We address the great, mighty, awesome God Who has no prejudice and will not accept any bribe. As the Torah teaches, "… Who performs justice for the orphan and widow and Who loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing" (Devarim 10:18).

We cannot separate God's greatness and His ways. "As He is merciful, so shall you be" (Sifri Devarim 11:22) - this is the true significance of the Thirteen Attributes. "Wherever you find God's greatness, there you will also find His humbleness. This is written in the Torah, repeated by the Prophets, and again in the Ketuvim" (Megilla 31a). It is only when we add the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and meditate on them that our sense of God's presence can be complete.

One further point: Without the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes following the verses relating to God's absolute Majesty, there would be a danger of our self-nullification before Him being so complete that we would, heaven forbid, be paralyzed and would lose our ability to strive to resemble Him. A person would be in danger of thinking, "What am I but an insignificant grain of sand, lacking any uniqueness? What am I and who am I that I should be among those who sing and call out to the Rock of our salvation?" This task, in the eyes of such an individual, seems to rest with the angels, the "holy ones that praise You every day."

Such self-nullification cannot exist together with the weighty requirement of "You shall walk in His ways" (Devarim 28:9). The demand that we strive to emulate the traits of the Holy One means that we dare not dismiss out of hand all the spiritual and moral progress that we have made during the course of the entire year. Our self-nullification and prostration are meant to negate our sense of superiority and selfishness, but not to downplay our spiritual potential.

The requirement that we "walk in His ways," that we strive to resemble Him, must have as its point of departure the recognition of all that is special about ourselves. Our prostration before God should not destroy all the spiritual wealth that we have absorbed from His Torah and from the wonders of His creation. All of this is given to us by Him; it is what God has set aside for those who seek Him and study His Torah. Hence we are not to efface ourselves in this area, but must use all the spiritual riches we have acquired to propel ourselves to ever greater heights.

I pray that, animated by a sense of God's greatness, we will confess wholeheartedly and repent truthfully, so that we will walk in His ways, giving of ourselves to those who are in distress and hallowing His Name.

(This sicha was delivered on the first night of Selichot, Motzaei Shabbat Nitzavim 5760 [2000].)



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