Season of Change
The official start to Autumn is Monday, September 23. However, this Saturday night Ashkenazic Jews, Jews who take their customs from Eastern European communities, begin the solemn practice of reciting Selichot. Sephardic Jews from places such as Yemen, Spain, the Isle of Rhodes, Morocco, Syria, and Turkey have been saying Selichot since the beginning of Chodesh Elul. Despite this difference in custom, all agree these Selichot are said until the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Our “season of change” has already begun.
There is however a major distinction between the Selichot said until the end of Yom Kippur and those said on our national fast days that occur throughout the year. The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soltoveitchik, of blessed memory, explained, for example, that the Selichot said on the 10th of Tevet, a fast enacted by our Sages when the siege of Jerusalem began, were incorporated into our daily morning tefillah. But those said from Elul until the conclusion of the Ten days of Repentance, are said during the night. Many Torah scholars, such as the Rambam, suggest we should get up in the very middle of the night and continue saying Selichot until dawn.
The Rav explained that these Selichot, said directly preceding and during our High Holidays, are not due to some external calamity facing the nation of Israel. Rather these Selichot are caused by our very human condition, stemming from our own internal struggles. Human beings are vulnerable and prone to numerous mistakes. The reason is that we often misapply our unique ability to exercise our free will.
When we face the reality of our existence, we can’t escape the truth that our own nature is the cause of our own undoing. This fact can be so disturbing to us that sometimes we are unable to sleep. The Selichot said at this time of year reflect this idea. We interrupt our sleep, arise in the night and turn to our Creator begging His forgiveness. The only reason we stop the Selichot is to fulfill the obligations of saying the morning Shema and tefillah.
While there is no one that is immune to this failing, and Selichot are beneficial, yet Selichot are like a counter punch. After the fact we admit our faults and plead for mercy. But there is a pre-emptive approach as well. That approach is more difficult but in the end is more enduring. That approach involves study and learning to see into ourselves even before we act. Being aware of who we are and what really drives us is indispensable to making real change and human advancement.
At the Posnack School, we embrace our rich Jewish heritage which demands that we investigate deeply everything we do. As a person sees the truth and benefit behind every mitzvah, it becomes easier to internalize and incorporate them into our daily life. Who would continue to engage in a harmful lifestyle once the dangers are pointed out? Miscues by our very human nature would then be minimized as each person seeks the knowledge of how to act properly in every situation. By dint of this real change to human personality, we become the thinking and caring beings our Creator intended us to be.
May we all use this time of Selichot, not just to say we are sorry and beg forgiveness, but to resolve that the real change we can each make will come through more involvement in learning and understanding of our Torah and then by implementing its way of life. As King Solomon says in Proverbs, “It is a tree of life to all who grab hold of it… its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”
Rabbi Robert Kaplan