An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This upcoming period is termed The Days of Slihot (Penitential Prayers) because it is customary during this time to recite Slihot – poems and prayers that deal with personal preparations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
There are a variety of traditions among Jewish communities during the Days of Slihot. Some communities begin to recite Slihot – or actually “ask for forgiveness” – from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, one month before Rosh Hashana. In other communities it is customary to say slihot only several days prior to Rosh Hashana. It makes no difference what your tradition is. This is what the Talmud refers to when it says, “[It does not matter if] one does more and one does less, as long as he focuses his heart on the heavens.”
At the start of the slihot liturgy, we say the following words: “We do not come before You with grace or [good] deeds, [in Your great mercy we have come before You], as poor and indigent people we knocked at Your door.”
These words are not clear. Is it that when we approach God and speak with Him, we must feel as though we are poor and indigent? Each of us has done countless good deeds in our lives, so why must we feel as though we have not done any and are poor and indigent? To answer this we must examine the characteristics of our relationship – that of any man anywhere – with God.
When we talk about “asking for forgiveness,” we assume that if we did something wrong, we have the ability to regret our action and ask for forgiveness – and our deed will be forgiven.
However, not every relationship allows for the option of forgiveness.
Think of a relationship with a bank manager. If we impulsively took money out of our bank account and spent it, can we turn to the bank manager, ask for “forgiveness” and have the action erased and the money we wasted credited back to our account? Of course not.
However, if we impulsively expressed ourselves in an insensitive manner with our partner, we can apologize, ask for forgiveness, and usually our deed can be forgiven. What is the difference between our relationship with the bank manager and our relationship with our partner? The difference is simple: our relationship with the bank manager is based on interests. The bank has an interest in earning money, and so do those with accounts in the bank. In a situation in which the players have vested interests, there is no possibility of forgiveness. The financial system only cares about its own gains or losses, and not about anyone else’s.
Contrary to this, a relationship between partners is based on love, on the human decision to sign a pact with another person. In the relationship between a couple, deeds are not supposed to be based on personal interests, but on what is best for the partnership. A couple does not make calculations of personal gains or losses, but of what is best for their partner.
The ability to ask for forgiveness can only flourish in this sort of relationship.
Therefore, when we ask God for forgiveness, we assume that this is the kind of relationship between man and God; one based on deep mutual recognition rather than calculations of gains or losses.
This is what we declare when we stand before God as poor and miserable people. If we would come to ask for a good year as a reward for doing good deeds – and it is certainly possible that we did good deeds – it would mean that this is a relationship of “give and get,” a relationship based on “I deserve this” – of vested interests. But this is not the case. We aspire to have a relationship with God in which there is room for forgiveness, and therefore we set aside our rights and come as poor and indigent. We ourselves, without any material or spiritual capital, stand before God and talk with Him.
This concept is what allows us to ask for forgiveness and also allows us to ask for a better year. When we come to ask for health, love, satisfaction and a good livelihood – we do this out of a sense of confidence, and hope, that our relationship with God is based on love.
This will make us privileged, God willing, to have a good and sweet year.The author is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.