In our tradition, Selichot prayers (penitential prayers for forgiveness) began Motzei Shabbat, September 5, and will continue through Erev Rosh Hashanah (next Sunday evening, September 13). Then begin again on the Fast of Gedaliah (September 16) culminating on Erev Yom Kippur, September 22. It is not my intention to provide an in depth commentary on these prayers, but as I do with the Haftarah just provide a bit of food for thought. Most of the prayers or liturgical poems are from the Scriptures, though there are writings and petitions from various Sages. One of the mooring points of the Selichot prayers is Exodus 34:6-7 (TLV):
ADONAI, ADONAI, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means leaving the guilty unpunished, but bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.
This affirmation is followed by “Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed. For thou, O LORD, art good and forgiving, and abundant in kindness to all who call upon thee.” This affirmation of the attributes of a compassionate and gracious God, followed by the plea for forgiveness is repeated four times.
Later in the Selichot service, is the acknowledgement by Rav Amram Gaon, “We are more guilty than any other people, more ashamed than any other generation; joy has departed from us, our hearts have become faint because of our sins…”[i] The cry, the acknowledgment, is from a broken heart. One can hear the Psalmist’s lament,
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your mercy. According to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. …For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. (Psalm 51:3, 5-6 / 51:1, 3-4 in English).
But the Psalmist doesn’t stay in a condition of despair and destitution. He continues, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence— take not Your Ruach ha-Kodesh from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit,” (51:12-14 / 51:10-12 in English). In the Selichot, as in the Psalms, our condition is not glossed over. There is sin in our lives that must be dealt with. We must acknowledge our shortcomings and then trust in the gracious compassion of our heavenly Father to bring us past those shortcomings, back into relationship with Him.
A website by Yeshua believers states “As Messianic believers, we affirm that forgiveness is obtained by exercising emunah (faith) in the sacrifice of Yeshua as the kapparah (covering) for our sins, and by evidencing wholehearted teshuvah in our daily life. In Rabbinic Judaism, however, Selichot are said as a means of rendering a favorable verdict of “din,” or “judgment” by God during the Days of Awe.”[ii] While this statement is true, it is sad that an either/or contrast has been made. It is true that as believers in Yeshua we have forgiveness of our sins and shortcomings. And from an outsider looking in, it would appear that traditional Judaism is hoping for a “favorable verdict” based upon our prayers and petitions. Both of these observations are true but not complete.
While as believers in Yeshua we do have forgiveness, this does not negate our need to continually examine ourselves and see if we have slipped or fallen into old habits or patterns. If this were not so, why did Rav Shaul tell the believers at Corinth, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Messiah, so that each one may receive what is due for the things he did while in the body—whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). Or to the believers in Rome he cautioned, “He will pay back each person according to his deeds. To those who by perseverance in doing good are seeking glory, honor, and immortality—eternal life. But to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—wrath and fury,” (Romans 2:6-8). Even more succinct are the prophetic words in the Matthew’s Besorah, “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then ‘He will repay everyone according to his deeds,” (Matthew 16:27). Just because a person has gained forgiveness, does not mean that it is a one-time event and that they do not need to continually guard and examine themself to maintain a proper relationship with the LORD. As to traditional Judaism, the trust and hope is not based on self worth but on the Father’s love and care. The Saadyah Gaon wrote, “We trust in thy abundant mercies, and we rely upon thy righteousness; we look to thy forgiveness, and hope for thy salvation.”[iii]
In the last supplication of the daily Selichot, we proclaim, “Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no (good) deeds of our own; deal charitably and kindly with us and save us.” Regardless of our position or belief, this should continually be our heart’s cry throughout the year.
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a good new year!
[i] The Authorized Selichot for the Whole Year, 2nd Ed., translated and annotated by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, New York, Judaica Press, 1988, 17.
[iii] The Authorized Selichot for the Whole Year, 2nd Ed., translated and annotated by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, New York, Judaica Press, 1988, 6.
The graphic is from http://w3.chabad.org/media/images/156/rwVr1566138.jpg last accessed Sept. 6, 2015.