(photo credit: REUTERS)
These days are termed the days of Selichot because they are the days when it is customary to recite Selichot – liturgy and requests dealing with personal preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
There are different customs among Jewish sects during the days of Selichot. In some communities it is customary to recite Selichot, penitential prayers and liturgy, beginning with the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, one month prior to Rosh Hashana. Other communities recite Selichot for only several days prior to Rosh Hashana. No matter what your custom is, the Talmud says of this, “Whether a lot or a little, as long as the heart is turned toward Heaven.”
Let us delve into why we recite Selichot, and why we recite them during these days in particular. What is the purpose of Selichot? One of the names given to Rosh Hashana in Judaism is “Yom Hazikaron,” usually translated as Day of Remembrance. The meaning of the term is that on Rosh Hashana, all of humanity is positively remembered by God. This is the first day of the Hebrew calendar year, when we stand before Him and merit a good year. Yom Kippur is termed the Day of Forgiveness and Atonement, meaning the day when we stand before God and declare our honest desire to do only good, and God believes us and forgives us for our sins of the past year.
One of the nice things about the custom of reciting Selichot is that it is a folk tradition. Selichot are not mentioned in the Torah and God did not command us to recite them. People understood that the best preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is by reconciliation.
By reciting Selichot we reconcile with God and show – to ourselves as well – that we really intend to change our ways in order to do good and work toward “tikkun olam,” repairing the world.
One sentence from Selichot teaches us about their general orientation. This is what we say to God: “Your nation Israel, hungry for Your goodness, thirsty for Your grace, longing for Your salvation, will recognize and know that for the Lord our God is the mercy and the forgiveness.”
This sentence contains deep significance which we can understand if we imagine our reconciliation with God to be the way we reconcile with people.
When we hurt someone, for example a man who hurts his partner or a woman who hurts hers, and we want to reconcile, what is needed is a general declaration that includes two central themes: desire and trust.
Our desire to merit the love of our partner, and our trust in the other to be able to forgive and renew his or her love. If the desire is lacking, the reconciliation attempt will not be accepted. Likewise, if we do not trust the other, there is no value to the reconciliation.
This is precisely how Am Yisrael approaches reconciling with God: with desire and trust. The desire is expressed in the unique words “hungry for Your goodness, thirsty for Your grace, longing for Your salvation.”
These words express the strong desire, the craving and longing for God’s love. We will “recognize and know that for the Lord our God is the mercy and the forgiveness.”
With these words, we express the trust we place in God’s compassion and forgiveness. We recognize and know that God is “El maleh rachamim,” a God full of mercy, whose entire orientation is to benefit humanity and the entire world. And even if we sinned and transgressed during this past year, he is the King Who pardons and forgives.
When we express our desire and our trust, we have a strong basis for believing that the reconciliation will indeed succeed, and that we will merit a good and blessed year, marked by the end of a year and its curses and the beginning of a year with its blessings.The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel.