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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

This Saturday night at 11:00pm we will begin reciting Selichot. The Hebrew word selichah means “sorry,” “pardon” or “forgiveness.” The plural form of the word selichah is selichot, a word traditionally used to refer to special prayers for forgiveness recited during the month of Elul (through Yom Kippur). These prayers and poems for mercy are usually recited before dawn, prior to the daily Shacharit service. 

The list of the Thirteen Attributes of God's Mercy (Shelosh Esrei Middot shel Rachamim) are the primary focus of the prayers, based on the Talmud's statement that, "Whenever the nation of Israel sins, let them pray this prayer (i.e., the Thirteen Attributes) and I shall forgive them," (Rosh Hashanah 17b).The prayer reads  “Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses,” (Exodus 34:6-7). In general, Selichot services are intended to guide us toward an examination of our lives and to undergo teshuvah (returning to our original connection to G-d – see below). 

In Sephardic tradition, Selichot services begin at the start of Elul and run until Yom Kippur (similar to the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai), though in the Ashkenazic tradition they are recited late (i.e., around midnight) on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah.

Some of the prayers and music for the Selichot service are taken from the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, providing a transition between the "old year" and the new year. A Chassidic tradition holds that the last twelve days of the year (i.e., Elul 18 to 29) correspond to the twelve months of the closing year: on each of these twelve days, the penitent should review the deeds and achievements of its corresponding month. 

The theme of the High Holidays is teshuvah, a word often translated as “repentance,” though it’s more accurately understood as turning back (shuv) to God. The root of this verb occurs nearly 1,000 times in the Tanach and first occurs when God told Adam he would “return to the earth” (Gen. 3:19). 

In spiritual terms, shuv may be regarded as both a turning away from evil and a turning toward the good, though Jewish thinking regards turning to God as how we turn away from evil. This act of turning has the power to redirect a person’s destiny. It affects the whole life of the soul. As Abraham Heschel wrote, “No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment,” (Heschel: The Prophets, 194). 

According to Jewish tradition, genuine teshuvah involves four basic steps: 

  1. Regret (charata) Admit that you’ve committed wrong acts and feel remorse about your negative actions. 
  2. Abandonment (aziva) Stop the negative actions immediately
  3. Confession (viddui) Offer an apology to anyone you’ve harmed.  
  4. Resolve (kabbalah) Resolve to never repeat the harmful action again. With this final act of commitment never to repeat the same mistake, you have come full circle. You have returned