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The Frame of Mind for Selichot

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Sep 15, 2017

The Frame of Mind for Selichot 

For some, Selichot has begun a couple of weeks ago, while for others, the time to begin them quickly approaches. It is a unique time for the Jewish people, as we set aside a period of time each morning of prayer focused on themes of sin, repentance, and, above all, God’s mercy. The thirteen attributes of God’s mercy are considered to be the defining feature of the entire Selichot service, and a greater understanding of their critical role in the entire process of repentance can greatly enhance the current/upcoming experience.  

The central component of the Selichot service are the thirteen attributes of mercy, taught by God to Moshe after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7): 

And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] (venakeh lo’ yenakeh) He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children's children, to the third and fourth generations   ” 

One can immediately notice that the count of thirteen cannot be based on the amount of words in the verses. The accepted customary compilation of these attributes has the thirteenth as “venakeh”, which literally means “cleanses”, referring to complete forgiveness of sin. Therefore, the attribute of “lo yenakeh”, or not cleansing of sin, is not included. 

On a simple level, one can conclude that the idea of an incomplete forgiveness does not seem to be in line with the idea of a merciful God. Mentioning God’s stringencies would not appear to fit the overall desired theme. Yet one cannot deny the inclusion in the verse of both the “lo yenakeh” and the seemingly harsher idea of visiting iniquity on future generations. These may not be merciful descriptions, but they are included in the Torah verses. How are we able to lob off the last two for the sake of a more “accurate” description of mercy? 

Rashi notes the apparent issue with the phrase “venakeh lo’ yenakeh”, and offers two explanations (ibid): 

“[1] According to its simple interpretation, it means that He does not completely overlook the iniquity but exacts retribution for it little by little. [2[ Our Rabbis, however, interpreted [this expression to mean]: He clears those who repent, but does not clear those who do not repent” 

The second explanation offered by Rashi is considered the more classical interpretation, as it is sourced in the Talmud and cited by many other commentaries. The thought seems fairly simple: Complete forgiveness only comes to those who repent. Doesn’t this seem obvious? Would someone consider that God forgives someone who does not repent? 

The first answer, though, is much more difficult to comprehend. If one commits a sin, God will punish you regardless, although it might be a slower process. This implies that if one repents, even a complete repentance, that God will still punish him. How does this fit into our understanding of reward and punishment?  

Various commentators on Rashi, such as Siftei Chachamim and Gur Aryeh, note this very problem. They understand Rashi to mean something slightly different than the literal translation. The concept is not that God punishes the person who repents; rather, there are two scenarios that are possible after repentance. The first is where God returns the person to who he was prior to his sin, thereby meriting “the good” from God. The second is God wiping the slate clean, but the person not necessarily meriting these positive results from God. The first option corresponds to “nakeh” while the second to “lo yenakeh”. This explanation solves the theological dilemma proffered in approaching Rashi on a literal level. Nonetheless, we are faced with another question: what is the difference between the two acts of repentance? Is one “less” genuine? 

There happens to be an extensive debate as to the organization of the thirteen attributes. Rambam cites numerous variations in the compilation, as does Tosfot, Meiri, and many others. In some of these versions, the thirteenth attribute is the full statement of “venakeh lo yenakeh”. Taking the above second interpretation of Rashi into account, this would mean the thirteenth attribute is recognizing that God wipes the slate clean for those who repent, but does not for those who don’t. As we asked above, isn’t this obvious? It could be the answer lies in having the correct perspective on the concept of forgiveness. God is portrayed as merciful, each one of the twelve attributes reflecting this reality. However, man cannot see himself as a passive recipient of God’s mercy. In viewing God as merciful, it is tempting to see it as a one way street, where man’s effort is a limited one. Instead, the inclusion of “lo yenakeh” forces the point home that man must be active, that it is through the process of repentance that one can even begin the discussion of God’s mercy. It gives the entire set of attributes the proper characterization.  

Turning to the thirteen attributes as presented in today’s services, where “venakeh” ends the grouping, the notion of man’s active engagement would appear to be lost. Indeed, in the complete verse as found in the Torah, one can glean the idea that man is the initiator of the process of mercy, so to speak. Isolating the thirteen as we do today removes any notion of man’s involvement. The answer to this is quite simple. When we look to the Selichot service, we first recite prayers that evoke themes of sin and repentance. Only after this process are we able to focus on God’s mercy, via the thirteen attributes. We enter into the mindset of God and his compassion already defined as a person who is repenting, evoked through the poetic brilliance of the Selichot prayers. Therefore, the thirteen attributes can be solely focused on mercy, as each person is conditioned to the proper outlook at the time of their recitation (the same can be said of their recitation as part of the Viduy service). 

At the core of the idea of God’s mercy is the concept of repentance, and Rashi’s first explanation offers a deeper insight into its mechanism. For repentance to be effective, it must be a thorough process. A person must engage in introspection and avoid any insecurity in seeing himself as defective. The flaw must be corrected. Once done, the person can be said to have completed the process. At this point, God would view the individual as cleansed of sin. One should not consider this the true end of the process. Once a person repents, he should now see an opportunity for further improvement. One cannot rest on his laurels and view himself as complete. Rather, he must move forward, reinvigorated, newly desirous to engage in adherence to the commandments and the study of Torah. If he does not take advantage of this opportunity, his relationship with God will not be strengthened, and his ability to merit from God will be compromised. This concept is one that is easy to overlook when a person is engaged in repentance. 

The Selichot service offers us moments in our day where we can immerse ourselves in critical concepts concerning God’s mercy and the importance of repentance. Rather than focus on the extra time these prayers add to the daily regimen, we should take advantage of this experience to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays.  



Venue: Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah


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