Sunday, September 09, 2007

S'lichot: A Path to Reconstruction


Day is the natural time of humanity’s activity and creativity. It is by day that we fulfill our role set out by God to Adam, to ‘settle the world and conquer it.’ (Gen. 1:28) In contrast, night is the time when Mankind retreats from his dominant stance and hides from real and imagined dangers. It is a time of אמונה, but also a time of humility, when the bravado and temerity of כחי ועוצם ידי vanishes into the dusk, and Man scurries back to his protector, God. This shift is evident in the prayers of each time of day. Morning-man states with confidence, אמת ויציב, while night-man hesitates, and assuages his confusion with אמת ואמונה.

In his essays, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch discusses the season of the Days of Awe. He writes about the industrious preparation that the animal and plant kingdoms begin in autumn. Nature itself, by design, is sensitive to the impending winter months, and begins to carefully prepare for them. Bears store energy in fat deposits, and begin months of hibernation. Squirrels hoard nuts and even insects make sure that they are ready for winter. The natural order is an ethical lesson to humanity. Do not allow life to deceive you, ‘that youth will last forever…that strength will never wane…at wealth is secure, that earthly greatness is eternal!’ This time of year turns our thoughts to assuring our spiritual sustenance, for the future. It is a season in which we are no longer able to revel in the abundance and decadence of summer; the plenty we have must be carefully preserved for the night-season of winter.

This is the season that begins our s'lichot tonight. Interesting indeed that this autumn season is one in which the nights are long, and days short. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, night leads to night, with day only a short reprieve. The season reinforces the message of dependence and humility of night-time. And it is in this double night that we congregate here, to officially begin our season of repentance and, ultimately, atonement.

Both night and autumn-winter lead us to shed any pretenses we may have developed. In our fear for our personal survival during the natural times of danger and scarcity, we are forced to recognize our stark dependence on God. We know better than ever that we need our relationship to God.

Throughout the year, in our active conquering of the world around us, it is almost inevitable that we veer from the path God has commanded us to travel. The word חטא itself means running afoul of one’s target, as an arrow that misses its mark. As nature turns us back to thoughts of God and our ultimate reliance on him, we contemplate our neglected relationship with Him. In these days, the lessons of un’taneh tokef guide us. Three things erase our sins and lead us to a sweet year: תשובה, תפילה, and צדקה. I would like to touch on these three concepts briefly, and discuss what I believe to be the central theme of the triad, the reconstruction of the broken relationship between a man and his God.


In his Essay on prayer, R’ Soloveitchick describes a new approach to the concept of t'fillah. Prayer does not only make us better people, more deserving of favorable judgment. Neither is prayer simply Man's attempt to beseech God for his needs. It is a fundamental way that Mankind interacts with God, a medium through which we encounter the divine. T'fillah is not focused on God, but on Man. However, it is not only anthropocentric, because it is a dialogue between Man and God. By creating that emotional connection that prayer instantiates, Man brings himself into communion with God. By realizing that life in the absence of God is empty and cold, a person brings himself to prayer, in order to draw God back into his realm of existence, so to speak. We are commanded to find God through prayer. Thus, the very act of prayer is a form of interaction and דביקות with the Divine. When we pray, we develop a connection to God. Much as each interaction between a husband and wife pave the strength and depth of connection in their marriage, so does prayer lay a foundation of familiarity and intimacy.

Prayer, then, not only provides a venue for us to petition God for help with the minutiae of life. It also provides us with a life-line to God, Who acts as a shoulder to cry on. As Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein writes (Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, Ch. 2), we can always turn to God at a time of crisis, and He comforts us even when he does not immediately alleviate the suffering. T'fillah reconstructs this important aspect of the divine relationship.


The recreation of our shattered relationship to Hashem as a beloved supporter is also the fundamental aim of t'shuvah.

There are two concepts used in Jewish thought for atonement. The first is כפרה, the absolution of sin. This is the cut and dry idea of penance: the correction of our propensity to break God’s word. It is affected by sacrifice and rite.

However, there is another concept, developed most clearly by the prophets, that of תשובה. This is the rectification of our damaged emotional relationship to Hashem. This requires service of the heart and mind, and a change in attitude. We realize the beauty of closeness to God – קרבת אלקים לי טוב, and mourn the actions that have placed an iron curtain between us and our Father in Heaven.

In Chagiga (15a), we read the tragedy of Elisha ben Avuyah, apostate par excellence. Goaded by R’ Meir, his faithful student, to repent, he stated, ‘I have already heard a בת קול that everyone may do teshuvah, but I am barred.’ We can imagine the sort of sins he must have done, and incited others to do, in order to be barred from repentance by heavenly decree. Even so, says the Maharsha, Elisha should have repented, for nothing can stand in the way of תשובה, even a בת קול.

I believe Elisha’s mistake was that he saw t'shuvah simply as a means of attaining atonement. He missed out on the relationship with God that t'shuvah aims to rectify. This is an emotional bond, like one between a man and wife. Imagine a situation where your wife tells you, ‘do not even ask for forgiveness, I cannot forgive you.’ The emotional bond and intimacy of the relationship does not allow you to accept this. You beg, even demand forgiveness, and it is granted in the end. This is the relationship that Elisha should have been trying to attain through t'shuvah . He did not possess it, and so he missed the fundamental lesson, and the opportunity for forgivness.

Another explicit example, the story of Elazar ben Dordia (Avodah Zara 17a) stands out in contrast, as one who learned the value of this relationship. A man who visited every harlot he could, Elazar was once confronted by a woman who told him that he would never reach עולם הבא because of his many sins. He sat and cried, begging the mountains, valleys and all of nature to intercede on his behalf. Nature refused to help him. In the analogous situation, Elisha ben Avuyah gave up on his atonement. Not so Elazar ben Dordia. אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי, he cried, taking his repentance into his own hands. As he died from the intensity of his emotion, a בת קול proclaimed that he had been accepted. His refusal to live without reconnecting his relationship to God was so strong, it overcame the seemingly impossible. (Paradoxically, it is a heavenly voice that proclaims him worthy, the same medium which claimed that Elisha would find no forgiveness.)

In הררי קדם, R’ Soloveitchik speaks of the tremendous power of repentance out of love. Since it comes from an internal need to rectify a shattered relationship with God, it has the power to transcend ordinary rules of t'shuvah such as the levels of penance and categories of sin. It is able to affect immediate and unconditional purity in the pennant one. When we utilize this internal connection to God and repent from love, we are able to reach the t'shuvah that can defeat even a heavenly decree against it.

When a woman sins against her husband, his natural love for her causes him to wish to take her back. Indeed, this analogy is not lost on the prophets. Thus, Hoshea is told to take a harlot as a wife. When she is unfaithful, God tells him to leave her and their children. When Hoshea hesitates, God remarks on his natural desire to remain with her. He says, ‘how can you tell me to abandon the Jews because of their sin, when you are unwilling to abandon your wife?’ The love and intimacy between man and wife, reflected in the bond between God and Israel, is able to transcend the chasm created by the most vile offence. אין דבר עומד בפני התשובה.


Lastly, we turn to צדקה. If תשובה and תפילה are so powerful, why do we need this third part?

The singularity of the communal Yom Kippur offerings is that they atone for Israel’s sins even without any effort on the part of the nation. The communal offerings create a national forgiveness that trickles down to the individual Jew.

In order to be forgiven on our national level, we must demonstrate to Hashem that we are unified. We love each other, and care for one another. This bond is demonstrated most powerfully by the giving of charity and kindness to the less fortunate. By demonstrating our national bond and showing love and respect to God’s people, we show our desire to be treated as part of the עם סגולה, with all the rights and privileges that brings. Thus, the final element of national teshuvah is completed by חסד and צדקה to one another.

Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of the estrangement sin engenders, and the subsequent intimacy reignited by repentance. And what action does Hashem demand of us, so that our penance may be accepted? 'But thou bidst, and just thou art/Me shew mercy from my heart/Towards my brother, every other/Man my mate and counterpart.' Demonstrating mercy and love to our fellow man is our way of deserving the same treatment from Heaven.


Through the season and time of day, may we be moved to realize our close connection to God. The סליחות we are about to say will melt our hearts and help us return to God with love. Let us read the english translation, and be moved by the traditional tunes that accompany out thoughts of return and love for God. May this awesome time leave its impression on our future.

May our application of prayer, repentance and kindness lead us to a wonderful, sweet, safe and spiritually uplifting new year.