4.01 UNDERSTANDING TESHUVA AND SLICHOS: UNDERSTANDING SELICHOS
WHAT ARE SELICHOS?
Last night many of us participated in the Selichos Service. The Selichos Service consists of special prayers for forgiveness that our Sages instructed us to say the days before Rosh HaShanah and during the Ten Days of Teshuva. The goal of these prayers is to motivate us to complete our Elul preparations and to warm us up for the intensive activity of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
King David knew that in the future the Beis HaMikdash would be destroyed and the use of sacrifices would cease because of the sins of the Jewish Peopie. King David was troubled because he didn’t know how the Jews would get atonement for their sins. The Holy One said to King David, “At the time that troubles come to the Jewish People because of their sins, let them say before me the order of the Selichos Prayers (the 13 Attributes) and I will answer them. (Tanna D’be Eliahu Zuta, Perek 23)
WHY MUST SELICHOS BE AT LEAST FOUR DAYS PRIOR TO ROSH HASHANAH?
The Ashkenazi Community follows the custom of beginning Selichos at least four days before Rosh HaShanah. The reason for this is the following:
The Sages point out that in reference to bringing sacrifices, on all the other festivals the Torah writes merely v’hikravtem, and you shall bring an offering (BaMidbar 28.19; 27; 29.8;13). However, in the case of the sacrificial offerings of Rosh HaShanah the wording Is changed to read va’asisem, and you shall “make an offering” (BaMidbar 28.2). This change alludes to the fact that before Rosh HaShanah a Jew must prepare himself as an offering to G-d, creating himself a new person.
A sacrifice has to be free of all blemishes. The Torah requires that all animals used for sacrifices must undergo a four-day period of inspection and examination to ensure that they are free of any blemish, thus ensuring their fitness for sacrifice upon the altar. Similarly, four days before Rosh HaShanah, a Jew must inspect and examine himself to see that he frees himself from any spiritual imperfection which would invalidate his rededication to the service of G-d. (The New Rosh HaShanah Anthology, p. 26)
Four days is the absolute minimum required to inspect yourself of any imperfection. So, therefore, the Selichos process is giving us a powerful message: get to work and eliminate those remaining things holding you back from Rosh HaShanah perfection.
WHY DO SELICHOS ALWAYS BEGIN ON A MOTSEI SHABBOS (SATURDAY NIGHT) IN THE YESHIVA COMMUNITY?
The custom is to always begin the Selichos Prayers on a Motsei Shabbos. If Rosh HaShanah falls on a Thursday, Friday or Shabbos, then it begins on the previous Motsei Shabbos. If, it falls on a Sunday or a Wednesday, the custom is to begin an entire week earlier.
Why do we always begin on Motsei Shabbos?
The Jew is filled with the spirit of Shabbos, the day on which he rests from the physical and mundane weekly matters. He spends the day in spirituality, Torah study, and reflection about G-d. Since this spirit of the sanctity of Shabbos flows over immediately to the weekdays, and Shabbos is a day of learning and pleasure, it was felt that in this mood one would be more adequately prepared for entering into the penitential frame of mind. Hence, Selichos are to begin on the night or early part of the day immediately following Shabbos. (The Leket Yosher (O.C. p. 118) quoted in The New Rosh HaShanah Anthology, p. 27)
The fact that Selichos falls on Motsei Shabbos underlines their importance. Four days before Rosh HaShanah would be enough. But in order to guarantee their success, the Rabbis sometimes move it up to as much as nine days early so that we can say them on a Motsei Shabbos. The Selichos Prayers are so important that no obstacle must get in its way. That is why it begins each time on a Motsei Shabbos.
WHAT IS THE MEANING BEHIND SELICHOS?
Now begins a whole new level in the teshuva process. It is the fourth week of Elul, and you have worked on yourself during the first three weeks of the month. You have tried to wake yourself up to your responsibilities, you have worked on your relationship to G-d, and you have begun to investigate the teshuva process. Now is the time to get much more serious.
We come before G-d and we realize where we are holding. We realize how far we are from where we should be and we stand in shame before G-d:
To You, 0 G-d belongs righteousness, but to us shame of face. How can we complain? What can we say? What can we speak? Or how can we justify ourselves? Let us search and examine our ways and return to You for Your right hand is outstretched to those returning to You. Not with virtue, nor with good deeds, do we appear before You, but like the poor and the needy we knock at Your gates. We knock at Your gates, 0 merciful and gracious One. Please do not turn us away empty from Your presence. From Your presence, our King, turn us not away empty, for You hear our prayers. (from the Selichos prayers).
The Selichos Prayers are a warmup for the whole teshuva process that is getting more and more intense. We must ask ourselves: Are we humble before G-d? Do we realize where we really are holding? Do we really understand what we have really done during the past year? And don’t we really have to ask Him to truly forgive us? This is the purpose of the whole Selichos process.
The word ‘Selicha” means forgiveness. What frame of mind should one be in who asks forgiveness? What are the emotions involved? How does one proceed? The Rabbis have taken the answers to all these questions and formulated a set of prayers that are designed to bring us to a state of humility conducive to asking forgiveness and doing teshuva.
A ten year old boy stole ten shekels from his father to buy a toy that he wanted from the store. The toy costs twenty shekels so he figured he would go to his father to ask for the other ten shekels. He went to his father to ask for the other ten shekels. His father looked him in the eye and gave him a warm and loving smile and said, ‘You have been such a good boy, here is twenty shekels so you can buy the whole toy.” The little boy immediately burst into tears. (Story heard from a friend).
This story is an indication of how we should feel during Selichos if we truly understood how many things we have done to our Father-In-Heaven.
IMPORTANT ADVICE FOR SAYING SELICHOS
The Selichos prayers are approximately 30-40 minutes long. We will be saying them every day except for Shabbos until Yom Kippur (for a little more than two weeks). For someone experiencing his first or second High Holy Days cycle, the experience might be very overwhelming. Therefore, it is important to find an older student who will sit down with you and explain to you the basic structure of the prayers. Then spend five to ten minutes a day trying to understand the meaning of a section of the service. During the service try to have cavannah (mindful intention) specifically on that section.Those who have done no preparatory study of the Selichos Service usually find it to be quite painful and difficult.
The Selichos prayers have already begun. They are a tremendous opportunity for actualizing many of the feelings we want to express but don’t know how. For those who prepared and want to use this tremendous tool, the opportunity lies before you. Use this year to learn how to utilize the Selichos service, and you will feel the powerful difference it makes in your teshuva process.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT STARTED PREPARING FOR THE UPCOMING DAYS OF AWE
There is another type of person who has a lot of pain when saying Selichos. They are the people who have not worked during the whole month of Elul. They approach Selichos with a remark such as ‘Now I better get to work.’ And now when it comes time to ask forgiveness they are not emotionally prepared. It is very hard to wrench oneself into the High Holy Day atmosphere immediately without preparation.
Even for this type of person, there is a solution. They should do teshuva on the fact that they haven’t prepared themselves during Elul. They should make a commitment from now on, for all the Elul months they will be having in the future to utilize them properly. Then G-d will surely grant them success this year in their Avodah.
Meanwhile, start getting to work. Try to come up with an approach how you can integrate the main points of the upcoming season into your life. Ask advice of a Rebbe or an older student as to what you can do in order to be effective. It is not too late. Do your best and you will see that your efforts reap rewards.