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"Needy and Destitute, We Knock at Your Door"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Summarized by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Gila Weinberg

(This sicha was originally delivered on motza'ei Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelekh, the first night of Selichot, 5750 [1990].)


The laws of Rosh Ha-shana in the Shulchan Arukh begin with a custom: We rise, during the final stages of night, and beg God for forgiveness. Sha'arei Teshuva, after criticizing people who recite the evening selichot before chatzot (midnight), adds an intriguing comment: "...on Motzaei Shabbat, the recital of selichot is FORBIDDEN until after chatzot, because of the holiness of Shabbat." A puzzling statement. Havdala has been recited, all work is permitted - why then is the recital of "viddui" (confession) still forbidden?

Perhaps we can divine the answer through the message of the midrash:

"'I am black and comely, daughters of Jerusalem' (Shir Ha-shirim 1:5). 'I am black' - on the weekdays. 'And comely' - on the Shabbat. 'I am black' - all year long. 'And comely' - on Yom Kippur. 'I am black' - in this world. 'And comely' - in the world to come."

Our personalities contain elements of Shabbat, of Yom Kippur, of the world to come. All is not dark. Bright spots within us abound: morality, spirituality, purity, "me'ein olam ha-ba." However, Chazal remind us, materialism, envy, hatred, lust and selfishness have their share in us as well. Elements of darkness and shadow exist in us alongside the bright glow of Shabbat. We are forbidden to confess our sins on Shabbat, because on Shabbat we are meant to develop and express our own Shabbat-like qualities.

The problem is that we tend to emphasize our bright spots, and to neglect our darker sides. The essence of viddui involves highlighting those deeds which require confession. While still immersed in the holiness of Shabbat, with the songs of praise still echoing in our ears, while the taste of Shabbat lingers on, we might fail to notice and consider those thoughts and deeds that we must confess.

Therefore, Sha'arei Teshuva maintains viddui may be recited only after chatzot on Saturday night, for fear that earlier we may yet be steeped in the aspect of "comeliness" of Shabbat, and blind to the element of "blackness" of the weekdays.

Our self-perception during viddui constitutes a central motif of the selichot. "Needy and destitute, we knock at your doors." Needy and destitute!

The Chassidim tell the story of a beggar who came to complain to his rebbe: "Master, how is this possible? When I come before you, you see me for only a few short moments, and yet so-and-so, the rich landowner, remains with you for over two hours!" The rabbi responded, "My precious son, when you come before me, I can immediately discern that you are a beggar. That rich landowner remained in my presence for two hours until I realized that he, too, was a beggar!"

There are times when man views himself as needy and destitute, and other times when he must search and examine himself for hours until he discovers that he is indeed needy and destitute. Outwardly, we have performed numerous mitzvot over the course of the year. Why then do we call ourselves "needy and destitute?" The actions have been accomplished; however, the spiritual worth of those actions is ultimately measured by the degree of awe and love of God which inspired their performance. This is the soul, the essence, of every mitzva.

If we examine all our actions based on their inner spiritual intensity, the results are often strikingly meager. Our state is comparable to that of a man who possesses a tremendous sum of money, however, the currency has become valueless. He is left with a pile of worthless papernotes. We are "needy and destitute" in a similar manner. We have performed mitzvot, but their ultimate worth is meager indeed.

In the Mussaf prayer of the high holidays, we say, "For the remembrance of all actions come before you, ma'aseh ish U-PEKUDATO." What does "u-pekudato" mean? The word should shake us to our foundations! It means one's role, his mission. Each person's mission in life comes before God. We must honestly examine whether we have fulfilled our God-given task.

One hundred thousand Jews have joined us in Israel this year, Jews who are Jewishly needy and destitute. Are God's demands of them equal to his demands of us?

According to the Rambam, God alone is versed in the act of weighing virtue against vice. For the most part, we yeshiva students have been fortunate enough to experience Torah and fear of heaven, belief in God and mitzvot, from infancy. We learned to keep mitzvot from our surroundings. Torah was presented to us on a silver platter. We must discover the true worth of this tremendous investment!

This week, the yearly budget of one of the largest factories in Israel was published. The incoming revenue was twelve million dollars, and yet the overall balance concluded with a loss of nineteen million dollars. Why? The explanation is quite simple: the factory had debts to pay. So it is with us. Yes, we keep the mitzvot, but how much of the investment do we owe to others? How much is actually the fruit of our own labor? Moshe Rabbenu, the humblest of men, wrestled with this dilemma. Perhaps that simple Jew, crying out for his portion of meat, was on a higher spiritual plane than himself. He was not granted the life of luxury which Moshe took for granted in Pharaoh's palace. Perhaps, if this same Jew had grown up in Moshe's surroundings, he would also have reached the spiritual status of Moshe Rabbenu!

With all of our good deeds, are we not still needy and destitute? "Ma'aseh ish u-pekudato:" who can be sure what mission God has chosen for him, having been privileged to be raised here in Israel, and not in Russia? What are God's demands of you personally?

Thus, without doubts or illusions, we open the book of selichot and proclaim: "Needy and destitute, we knock at your doors. You, God, are righteous, and we are ashamed."

And yet - this very neediness and poverty of spirit can also serve as a source for God's mercy, if we are indeed aware of our spiritual emptiness, and reach the appropriate conclusions.

The midrash (Shemot Rabba 45:6) states:

"'I will spread all my goodness before you...' At that moment, God showed him all the treasures reserved for the righteous. He asked: Lord of the Universe, to whom does this treasure belong? To raisers of orphans. To whom does this treasure belong? To the masters of Torah. And to whom does this treasure belong? To those who honor the masters of Torah. And so on, for each treasure. He saw a treasure larger than all the others, and asked: To whom does this great treasure belong? He responded: He who has good deeds is paid accordingly; and to he who has none - I give treasures for free."

When a person approaches God with a sense of poverty, and says, "Lord of the universe, I have nothing. I come before you empty-handed" - this is a mainspring of mercy. However, our recognition of our spiritual poverty must be sincere. If we are indeed destitute of mitzvot, we must act. What are the conclusions and ramifications of this sense of emptiness? If the emotion is sincere, it can become the source of bounty.

Let me give you a word of advice for the days of judgment: We have said that mitzvot are measured by the degree of fear of heaven involved. The spiritual content and motivation are the essence of the mitzva. However, some mitzvot have intrinsic worth regardless of the doer's intentions. These are mitzvot between man and his fellow man. This is true to such an extent, that if a person gives charity "in order that [his] son will live," he is considered a totally righteous person.

The Talmud (Sota 46b) deals with the ceremony of "egla arufa" and the elders who declare: "Our hands have not spilled this bloand our eyes have not seen [the murder]:"

"Could we possibly imagine that the elders have spilled blood? [The meaning of the verse therefore is that the elders declare:] 'It is not the case that [the victim] came to us and we sent him away without food; it is not the case that we saw him but did not accompany him on his way.' R. Meir said, We coerce accompaniment, for there is no limit to the merit of accompanying someone, as it is written (Shoftim 1:24-25): 'And the watchmen saw a man leaving the city, and said to him, show us the city gate and we will be kind to you... and he showed them the city gate.' What was the kindness? That they slew the entire city, and sent this man and his family to safety."

That selfsame man, who showed them the gate, merited the building of the city of Luz, which was never destroyed thereafter, and to which the very angel of death was denied admittance. The Talmud concludes:

"This Canaanite, who did not speak with his mouth or walk with his legs, saved himself and his family for generations. How much more worthy is the man who exerts himself to accompany another!"

And the Talmud adds:

"How did he show them [the gate]? Chizkya said, He signaled with his mouth. Rabbi Yochanan said, He showed them with his finger... Because this Canaanite pointed with his finger, he saved himself and his family for generations."

Chazal are trying to teach us something. When a person finds himself in strange surroundings, and someone helps him, even with the smallest thing, by simply pointing his finger - there is no greater mitzva than this.

Ours is a time with many strangers in our midst, who find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Often, all the help they need is a finger to point them in the right direction.

According to Chazal, smiling at someone is equivalent to giving him a glass of milk to drink. This is true both in the yeshiva and outside. There are so many new students who are in unfamiliar surroundings, who have not yet made the yeshiva their home. Chazal tell us: There is no limit to the obligation to help these newcomers find their way, with practical advice and personal warmth.

None of us can be certain of his God-given mission in this world. We all must continue to search. However, one thing is clear: It is part of our role and obligation to help the newcomers in our midst.

If we are looking for points of merit to gather before the day of judgment, this is the easiest type to acquire. There is no need for lofty spiritual intentions - only for positive actions.

Needy and destitute, we approach God. We must make every effort to bring some merit with us. Each one of us must come with the sense of spiritual poverty, and accept upon himself to be better.

"God is close to all who call him, to all who call Him sincerely." With this firm belief, with confidence that God comes close to all who call Him with sincerity, we prepare to stand before Him. We approach the selichot to ask for mercy for ourselves, for all the Jewish people all over the world and especially for our holy land.

May God grant us a year of life and peace, in both material and spiritual spheres. May we be blessed with peace from our enemies without and tranquillity within, for ourselves and all of Israel, Amen.




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