How Can We Speak and How Can We Justify Ourselves?
Translated by David Silverberg
"How can we complain, what can we say, how can we speak, and how can we justify ourselves? We will examine our ways and scrutinize them, and we will return to You, for Your Hand is outstretched to accept returnees. Not with abundance and not with deeds have we come before You; like paupers and mendicants we knock on Your door." (from the Selichot prayers)
Throughout the year, we try to present ourselves before others (and before our own selves) as the proud owners of spiritual wealth, as capable and accomplished individuals. Only upon the arrival of the moment of truth does it become clear that "like paupers and mendicants we knock on Your door." This does not mean that we are devoid of accomplishment; rather, any accomplishments we have attained cannot be attributed to us. The results were produced from Above, and anything we may have contributed on our own accord amounts to very little. God produced conditions - upbringing, influences, material circumstances - where we could be expected to accomplish what we have. But how far did we go beyond what could reasonably be expected of us? Upon weighing the divine efforts on our behalf, as against our own initiatives, we recognize that we are, indeed, "like paupers and mendicants."
This morning we read in the Torah:
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God and its sanctions, which your Lord your God is concluding with you this day." (Devarim 29:9-11)
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God." Such a sublime experience, the opportunity to stand before God, is granted to each individual. Not only does Kelal Yisrael as a whole stand before the Almighty, but so does every person, from the woodcutter to the water-drawer. What kind of relationship is forged at this setting? A covenant – a mutual, bilateral commitment between the individual and God. The sinner must ask himself, how will the Almighty relate to me from this point on? What will His reaction be? Indeed, any sin constitutes an act of infidelity. A covenant is the most binding and demanding form of commitment and, as such, any deviation from the provisions thereof comprises a breach of that agreement. Moreover, a covenant is a mutual commitment, by which I obligate myself towards God and God, as it were, obligates Himself to me as an individual. "I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me." Heaven forbid that a person should turn his back on the covenant! "You, O God, are righteous; and we are shamefaced."
"What can we say, how can we speak, and how can we justify ourselves?" Filled with shame, we cannot justify our behavior; we have no choice but to explore other options. One possibility presents itself before us: "We will examine our ways and scrutinize them, and we will return to God." But, as we know all too well, this options is far from simple. One needs to work arduously to reach this recognition: "I will go and I will return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now" (Hoshea 2:9). Only once the individual recognizes this, that "it was better for me [when I was close to God] then than now [when I have sinned]," can he return completely to God. The challenge that lies before us over the days ahead is to reach this recognition: "We will examine our ways and scrutinize them."
But there exists a second option, as well, one that we employ during the Selichot period: the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Their recitation comprises the central body of Selichot, as all other hymns merely form the introduction to the Thirteen Attributes. What are these Attributes all about? Why do they take center stage in our Selichot prayers?
Regarding the verse, "God passed before him and proclaimed" (Shemot 34:6, the verse of the Thirteen Attributes), Rabbi Yochanan commented that the Almighty wrapped Himself, as it were, in a tallit, like a sheli'ach tzibbur (the "emissary of the congregation," or cantor). "He showed Moshe the proper procedure for prayer, telling him, 'Whenever Benei Yisrael sin, they shall perform before Me this procedure and I will forgive them'" (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). Thus, we are promised that the recitation of the Attributes of Mercy yields forgiveness. How does this work?
As Rabbi Yochanan indicates, a sense of "sheli'ach tzibbur" is required to invoke the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Without this awareness, a person cannot hope to reap the potential benefits of the Attributes. Each Jew in each generation serves as a sheli'ach tzibbur. We pray almost exclusively in the plural. If our siddur contained only those prayers composed by the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola (Members of the Great Assembly), we would not utter a single private, individualistic prayer. In fact, throughout the High Holiday service we speak exclusively about Kenesset Yisrael. We pray for the welfare of the world at large, the restoration of the Shekhina and Jewish monarchy. But every person has his own, personal issues and problems. Fortunately for us, the great poets provided us with supplications such as "Avinu Malkeinu" and "U-netaneh Tokef," where we find some expression of private concerns. Essentially, though, this is how an individual must stand before the Almighty - as a sheli'ach tzibbur. The Zohar goes so far as to say that one who utters a personal prayer is like a barking dog.
The term "sheli'ach tzibbur," the emissary of the community, denotes a sense of communal responsibility and obligation. If the principle that each person should see himself as a sheli'ach tzibbur applies in general, then how much more so does it pertain to us! Who are the ones who give Benei Yisrael their unique image, if not for the thousands of yeshiva students and the tens of thousands of individuals engaged in Torah? These are the shelichei tzibbur, and the responsibility resting upon their shoulders is of a fundamentally different quality. When people talk of the Jewish character of the State of Israel, what provides this unique character? The answer lies in the fact that tens of thousands of Jews in Israel pray in synagogues and recite Selichot. Although these worshippers appear at first as mere individuals, they are, in fact, representatives of the Jewish community at large. We must pray for everyone. Without a sense of communal responsibility, one cannot proceed to recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, especially in our time.
Wherein lies the significance of the Almighty's symbolic "wrapping Himself" in a tallit? When one conceals his inner being, suppresses his ego and overcomes his own sense of self, then he himself cannot be seen. What emerges is only his role as agent and emissary, his entire being is defined exclusively by his sacred mission. As a sheli'ach tzibbur, God tells us that if we cultivate an ambitious sense of shelichut, of mission and undertaking, then the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes will not be for naught.
Indeed, perhaps the most difficult challenge we confront on the Yamim Nora'im is that "we pass before Him like sheep," we come before the Almighty's tribunal one by one. Were one to be tried as part of the collective whole, then his nerves could be eased by the knowledge that his merits are considered together with those of others far worse than he. But when anticipating the experience of God judging us "like a shepherd, tending to his flock, passing his sheep individually under his rod," of standing before the Judge of judges as an impoverished individual, what chance does one have? But when one thinks of himself as a sheli'ach tzibbur, if he senses that he walks not alone but rather on the heels of the agwhole, then the entire situation changes. Even if he himself is not worthy, the community is.
This is why the Almighty taught us the lesson of the sheli'ach tzibbur specifically while "enwrapped in a tallit." If one is searching for a means by which to invoke divine mercy and kindness, then he must conceal his individualistic self and serve as the sheli'ach tzibbur. And one bears this responsibility whether he is a rabbi, shoemaker, woodcutter or water-drawer. A person is asked not about his profession, but about who he is.
The Thirteen Attributes with which God is defined serve as a model for us to emulate. Just as He is merciful, so must we be; just as He is compassionate, so must we be; etc. On previous occasions, I have quoted Rav Moshe Cordovero's comment on the first Attribute, which signifies God's tolerance and benevolence. God continually bestows vitality upon man, even when man uses that vitality to sin. Thus, God "bears insults to an extent beyond human imagination."
A person who always focuses on himself constantly makes demands on others and often finds himself insulted and hurt. In contrast, it is hard to describe how much a person can accomplish if he is ready to forego his honor. The Gemara tells of Rav Huna the son of Rabbi Yehoshua who fell critically ill and was visited by Rav Papa. Seeing the steady deterioration in his comrade's health, Rav Papa sensed that the end was near and ordered the preparation of shrouds. In the end, Rav Huna was healed, much to the embarrassment of Rav Papa. Rav Huna comforted him and remarked, "You were correct; the decree of death had been issued in the heavens. However, the Almighty said that since this person [Rav Huna] did not stand on his own honor, then I should not stand on My honor."
One must recognize that he is undeserving on his own accord, but merely represents the nation at large and thereby, as part of the nation as a whole, earns divine mercy. This is how we approach Selichot, and only with this in mind can we hope to take advantage of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and prepare ourselves for complete, wholehearted repentance. We will examine and scrutinize our conduct, out of a sincere and self-effacing sense of "like paupers and mendicants." Thus can we hope for the bestowal of divine compassion first and foremost upon Am Yisrael, upon our sacred land, and upon each person individually. May we all merit a year of good life, a ketiva va-chatima tova to us and all of Yisrael, Amen!
(This sicha was originally delivered on the first night of Selichot, 5747 .)