This Saturday night, we begin saying Selichot, the communal prayers for Divine forgiveness, prior to the High Holidays. Some Sephardic communities have already begun earlier this month. The custom this weekend is that the prayers are said at midnight, and for the next week until Rosh Hashanah, early each morning, from the crack of dawn.
As a child growing up, and into my teenage and adult years, these Saturday midnight prayers have always been very special. Everyone gathered at the Synagogue, had either just woken up, or had been studying, meditating or singing through the night, in preparation for the Selichot service. At the very moment the chazan begins the words Ashrei, we can all feel how the "Days of Awe" are now upon us.
Judaism believes in the power of Teshuva, that is the ability and power each one of us has to own up, to apologize and to sincerely repent. And when we do, we can ask G-d for forgiveness, and a new path opens before us.
This is described beautifully by Rabbi Sacks in his telling of the story of Judah/Yehudah.
"...A young man who sold his brother as a slave. His name was Yehudah. That was a real, real sin and yet he became the ancestor of Israel’s Kings. He became a lot more than that. We bear his name. We are called Jews because we are yehudim, because we are named after Yehudah. Why? Because he was forgiven. And why was he forgiven? Because he owned up, he said, ““Aval asheimim anachnu”, “We were guilty.” He said, (in words we say at Selichos), “Ma-nidaber uma-nitz’tadak” – “What more can we say to justify ourselves?”. He said, “haelokim matza et-ha’avon avadecha”, “God has discovered, uncovered our guilt.”
What’s more, he changed: From the person who sold his brother as a slave, he became the person who was willing to spend the rest of his life as a slave so that his brother Benjamin could go free. He became a Ba’al Teshuvah. Joseph, his brother, forgave him. God forgave him, and it is his name we bear..."
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, and we ask G-d for forgiveness for our own failures, mistakes and sins, it is worth us also taking a moment to think; How fast are we to judge others? How quickly do we write others off? Do we try to put ourselves "in their shoes"? Do we allow others to repent? Do we have it within ourselves to be forgiving? Do we give them a second chance, as we would want for ourselves?
Selichot, and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, show us that we can all come back home.
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Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.