Rabbi David Walk
Remember when it was cool to read the 'The New York Times'? Remember when we used the word 'cool' that way? Well, anyway in those bygone days I would read every year from November 2 until January 23 about the newspaper of record's campaign to raise funds for The Neediest cases. For over a century many millions of dollars have been raised for these unfortunates so that they too could have a happy holiday season. There would be daily vignettes about those in dire straights and eventually we got word how the fund helped them reverse their circumstances. It is always inspiring stuff. As we prepare for Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, which is Rosh Hashanah, we should also compile a similar dossier. However that case study of extreme need should be about ourselves.
We Ashkenazik Jews began saying Selichot (penitential prayers) this past Saturday night. Once upon a time this was a momentous occasion. I remember, as a youth, hearing moving stories from older European born Jews about Selichot services in the Shtetlach at the turn of the twentieth century. How the entire town would flow toward the shul. each member carrying a lantern through the darkened street. Absence from Selichot was a sign that something was grievously amiss at that individual's house, because how could anyone miss Selichot with our lives hanging in the balance during this time of judgment? In
I think that this phenomenon is mostly because there isn't enough known about how these services prepare us for the Days of Awe. So, I'd like to try my best to illuminate two important points about these ancient services.
The central feature of Selichot is the recitation of God's Thirteen Attributes of Compassion. Although there are many opinions about how to translate and count these attributes, here's one decent translation of them: And the Lord passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin and cleansing (Exodus 34:6-7). These thirteen character traits are critically important because the Talmud tells us: God clothed Himself like a Chazan and told Moshe that whenever the Jews recite these thirteen attributes, they will be forgiven (Rosh Hashanah, 17b). It appears that this is a charmed formula which brings us to a state of grace before our maker. There are great authorities who are not happy with that interpretation, because we Jews don't like magic. We like hard work, or at least understand its efficacy. So, Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593, Sfat) wrote that this formula only works when we do the items in the list. This is beautiful and in keeping with another statement in the Talmud: If somebody overlooks those who wrong them, the attribute of judgment overlooks their sins.
However, Rabbi Yehuda Amital OB"M, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon gave another moving explanation for the efficacy of declaring God's Attributes of Compassion. He reminds us how we start the Selichot service. We recite: Not with virtue, nor with good deeds do we appear before You, but like the poor and needy we knock at Your door. We knock at your door, O Merciful and Compassionate One, please don't turn us away empty handed from Your presence. Rav Amital explains that we all have positive and upbeat aspects to our personalities, but we also have darker, less appetizing features as well. We often come before God feeling good about ourselves and confident in our relationship with God. He said, '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 paper notes. We are "needy and destitute" in a similar manner. We have performed mitzvoth, but their ultimate worth is meager indeed.' The Rosh Yeshiva tells us to think that all of our treasury of mitzvoth and good deeds should be viewed as small as compared to our deficit, our sins and unpaid obligations.
Many of us have very good lives, thank God. We feel very confident and self assured about our ability to take of ourselves. That kind of self esteem is valuable, and serves us well in life and business. But it doesn't help us pray better. The way to achieve an inspiring prayer is to feel in need of something. The best prayers contain a bit of hardship. We must aspire to inspiration in our High Holiday prayers. To do that, we must check all arrogance and self-importance at the door. These traits never really belong in our sanctuaries.
What moves people the most is not the intellectual explanations but the emotional content of the service. We should try to get in touch with the feelings aroused by the time of year, the mood of the moment, the melodies, and the fact that Selichot express our legitimate concern that we are not worthy. Hopefully, this will create a genuine sincerity which can make this our most successful liturgical experience.
As Rabbi Amital quoted King David, "God is close to all who call Him, to all who call Him sincerely (Psalms 145:19)." With this firm belief, with confidence that God comes close to all who call with sincerity, we prepare to stand before Him. We approach the Selichot to ask for mercy for ourselves, for all the Jewish people the world over.' Armed with this kind of deep felt sentiment each one of us can make this High Holiday experience one to not only remember but to make 5775 a year of Torah, mitzvoth, good deeds, and intimacy with God. May your narrative of need make you an inspiring case of the Neediest. Have a happy, healthy New Year!