Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spiritual Web Journey: What Is (Are) Selichot?

Elul is nearly half over, and the process of Teshuvah intensifies with the recitation of special penitential prayers known as Selichot. Sephardim have been reciting them throughout Elul, but for Jews of European (Askenazi) extraction, the custom is to begin reciting them at dawn on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. That time was moved up to midnight over the last century, to accommodate late-sleeping Americans. Some (like us) have moved it up even more, to just after Shabbat (next week), to accommodate babysitters. Whenever you do these prayers, the idea is the same – preparation to enter the New Year in the proper mood of humility and contrition.

According to an article at,, “the Selichot prayer service is patterned after a custom practiced by Jews in the ghettos and small towns of Eastern Europe. In those days, during the ten "Days of Awe" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a representative of the synagogue would go from house to house at midnight to rouse Jews from their sleep. He would knock loudly three times upon the door with his wooden clapper, then sing in a traditional Yiddish melody, "O Israel! O holy people! Awake! Rouse yourselves! Get up for the service of the Creator" When the Jews reached the synagogue, they would recite Selichot, which are prayers asking God for forgiveness.”

Find out more about Selichot at, and The National Jewish Outreach Program has an excellent section on this at

Twice during Selichot, and again throughout the Days of Awe, we repeated the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy. Each of these qualities needs to be cultivated more within ourselves. More on the attributes can be found at The basis for reciting the thirteen attributes of mercy is found in Rosh Hashana 17b. "God passed by him and called..." (Shemot 34,6). R. Yochanan said: Were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing. It tells us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself (in a talit) like the prayer leader (chazzan) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them. "HaShem HaShem" - I am He before man sins; I am He after man sins and repents ... Rav Yehuda said: A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual, as is written, "Behold I am making a covenant" (34:10).”

This passage raises lots of questions, about why God had to don a tallit and show Moses how to recite the attributes. The aforementioned Web site covers many of these points. But the most important question is why recite a laundry list of qualities at all, rather than simply praying for forgiveness. From this we learn that the attributes of God, in Judaism, are not theology. They are revelations, manifestations of God's presence in the world. In other words, we need not waste too much time speculating on what God is – but rather on what God DOES, and how sanctity is made manifest in our world.

Maimonides listed the steps toward true Teshuvah as being:

Recognize and discontinue the action, which may be something as drastic as stealing or as common as losing one's temper.

Verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete existence in one's own mind.

Regret the action. Evaluate the negative effects this action may have had on oneself or on others.

Determine not to do the action again. Picture yourself in the same situation and create a positive way to handle it.

Finally, here's a prayer for Selichot that I found on the web a few years ago that seems to have disappeared from its site, so I don't know who the author is:

DEAR GOD, forgive me for not being the best Jew I can be. Forgive me for pointing fingers at others who are less concerned with their Judaism than am I. Help me to do better in all things. Help me to be the best person that I can be.

I know that You, God, can only forgive me for those offenses I have committed against You. I must ask forgiveness directly of those people whom I have wronged in order for them to forgive me.

FOR OUR CHILDREN (of all ages), please forgive us for all the times we have yelled at you because we were angry at someone else. Forgive us for the promises we made and failed to keep. Forgive us for not understanding your inner hurts, and for the times when we were too busy to listen. Forgive us for all the times we said "No" for no reason. Help us to be better parents. Try to understand that parents often are selfish, and that they think of themselves first. Yet parents love you and want to teach you to love the world and all the people in it. We love you, and ask your forgiveness.

FOR OUR SPOUSES, please forgive me for the petty misunderstandings that have grown into large quarrels. Forgive me for not reaching out to you in your need when I was too wrapped up in my needs. Help me to be a better mate. Help me to learn to share more of my innermost thoughts with you so that you can be more receptive to my needs. Help me to appreciate our love to its fullest.

FOR OUR FRIENDS, forgive me for all the unknown hurts I may have inflicted upon you by not being aware of your needs. Forgive me for not sharing some of my thoughts and hurts with you. Help me to be a better friend.

FOR OURSELF, forgive me for all the times I did not stop myself from saying or doing something that may have hurt others. Forgive me for being too hard on myself and not seeing the goodness that is there. Forgive me for not allowing myself to grow. Help me to understand that before another can love me, I must love myself. Help me to enjoy life, love and the world.

FOR EACH OTHER, thank you for being patient with each other; thank you for caring about each other; thank you for being you and allowing each of us to be ourselves.

See you here for Selichot, Sept. 20 at 10 (preceded at 8:30 by the acclaimed film, "Praying With Lior")

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