Tuesday, September 23, 2008
This past motzaei shabbat (Saturday night), Ashkenazi Jews began reciting Selichot, special penitential prayers. Sephardic Jews have been reciting Selichot since the beginning of the month of Elul. The Selichot prayers beg G-d to have mercy on His people, to forgive us our sins, and to let us do complete teshuva. They are focused on the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy which G-d revealed to Moses after the Sin of the Golden Calf. They beseech G-d's compassion that He may overlook our sins and to forgive us.
From the beginning of Elul, through Rosh HaShana and the Ten Days of Teshuva, until Yom Kippur, each Jew goes through an intense period of soul-searching. This period of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is devoted to doing teshuva, repentance. The Rambam writes in his Hilchot Teshuva (2:6) that "repentance and outcry [in prayer] are always proper, but between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur they are especially proper and are answered immediately, as it is written (Isaiah 55:6): 'Seek G-d when He is found, called upon Him when He is near.'"
When the Temple in Jerusalem stood, various offerings were sacrificed to G-d. There were special offerings for each day and festival. An elaborate sacrificial system existed. On Yom Kippur, the Torah commands for the following offering: "Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement; it shall be a holy gathering to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord.  And you shall do no work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your G-d." (Leviticus 23:27) However, the essence of the atonement was not the sacrifice itself, but the 'affliction of our souls' ie. fasting and repentance. When G-d decided to overturn His decree against the people of Ninveh, the Torah records that G-d saw their repentance and how they changed their actions. The essence is not in the physical act of fasting, crying, slaughtering an animal but rather in repenting from our sins, confessing our deeds and turning from them.
For close to 2000 years, the Jewish people have been bereft of a Temple in which to offer sacrifices to HaShem. What do we do? Are we cut off from repenting for lack of a Temple? The Prophet Hosea (14:3) revealed to the People of Israel take G-d accepts our prayers in the place of animal sacrifice. "Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: 'Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips." G-d does not desire animal sacrifice but rather sincere teshuva.
"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to God, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God. For He will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:7)
"And if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (II Chronicles 7:14).
"But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has practiced he shall live...When a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you (Ezekiel 18:21- 22,27,30).
"By loving kindness and truth iniquity is atoned for..." (Proverbs 16:6).
"If you return to God you will be restored; if you remove unrighteousness far from your tent...then you will delight in God..." (Job 22:23-27).
May G-d inscribe all of Am Yisrael in the book of Life, Happiness, Prosperity, Success, and Plenty. May Hashem accepts all our teshuva and cast away our sins. May 5769 be the year of the Complete and Final Redemption, amen.