"Needy and Destitute, We Knock at Your Door"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




                       by HaRav Yehuda Amital 

	The laws of Rosh Hashana in the Shulchan Arukh begin with 
a custom:  We rise, during the final stages of night, and beg 
God for forgiveness.  Sha'arei Teshuva, after criticizing 
people who recite the evening selichot before chatzot 
(midnight), adds an intriguing comment: "...on Motzaei 
Shabbat, the recital of selichot is FORBIDDEN until after 
chatzot, because of the holiness of Shabbat."  A puzzling 
statement.  Havdala has been recited, all work is permitted - 
why then is the recital of "vidui" (confession) yet forbidden?

	Perhaps we can divine the answer through the message of 
the midrash:  'I am black and comely, daughters of Jerusalem.' 
(Shir Hashirim 1:5).  I am black - on the weekdays.  And 
comely - on the Shabbat.  I am black - all year long.  And 
comely - on Yom Kippur.  I am black - in this world.  And 
comely - in the world to come."

	Our personalities contain elements of Shabbat, of Yom 
Kippur, of the world to come.  All is not dark.  Bright spots 
within us abound: morality, spirituality, purity, "me'eyn olam 
haba".  However, Chazal remind us, materialism, envy, hatred, 
lust and selfishness have their share in us as well.  Elements 
of darkness and shadow exist in us alongside the bright glow 
of Shabbat.  We are forbidden to confess our sins on Shabbat, 
because on Shabbat we are meant to develop and express our own 
Shabbat - like qualities.

	The problem is that we tend to emphasize our bright 
spots, and neglect our darker sides.  The essence of vidui 
involves highlighting those deeds which require confession.  
While still immersed in the holiness of Shabbat, with the 
songs of praise still echoing in our ears, while the taste of 
Shabbat lingers on, we might fail to notice and consider those 
thoughts and deeds that we must confess.

	Therefore, Sha'arei Teshuva maintains vidui may be 
recited only after chatzot on Saturday night, for fear that 
earlier we may yet be steeped in the aspect of "comeliness", 
of Shabbat, and blind to the element of "blackness" of the 

	Our self-perception during vidui constitutes a central 
motif of the selichot.  "Needy and destitute, we knock at your 
doors".  Needy and destitute.

	The Chassidim tell the story of an impoverished beggar 
who came to complain to his Rebbe:  "Master, how is this 
possible?  When I come before you, you see me for only a few 
short moments, and yet so-and-so, the rich landowner, remains 
with you for over two hours!"  The rabbi responded, "My 
precious son, when you come before me, I can immediately 
discern that you are a beggar.  That rich landowner remained 
in my presence for two hours until I realized that he, too, 
was a beggar!"

	There are times when man views himself as needy and 
destitute, and other times when he must search and examine 
himself for hours until he discovers that he is indeed needy 
and destitute.  Outwardly, we have performed numerous mitzvot 
over the course of the year.  Why then do we call ourselves 
"needy and destitute"?  The actions have been accomplished, 
however, the spiritual worth of those actions is ultimately 
measured by the degree of awe and love of God which inspired 
their performance.  This is the soul, the essence, of every 

	If we examine all our actions based on their inner 
spiritual intensity, the results are often strikingly meager.  
Our state is comparable to that of a man who possesses a 
tremendous sum of money, however, the currency has become 
valueless.  He is left with a pile of worthless papernotes.  
We are "needy and destitute" in a similar manner.  We have 
performed mitzvot, but their ultimate worth is meager indeed.

	In the musaf prayer of the high holidays, we say "for the 
remembrance of all actions come before you, ma'ase ish 
UPEKUDATO".  What does "upekudato" mean?  The word should 
shake us to our foundations!  It means role, mission.  Each 
person's mission in life comes before God.  We must honestly 
examine whether we have fulfilled our God-given task.

	One hundred thousand Jews have joined us in Israel this 
year, Jews who are Jewishly needy and destitute.  Are God's 
demands of them equal to his demands of us?

	According to the Rambam, God alone is versed in the act 
of weighing virtue against vice.  We have been fortunate 
enough to experience Torah and fear of heaven, belief in God 
and mitzvot, from infancy.  We learned to keep mitzvot from 
our surroundings.  Torah was presented to us on a silver 
platter.  We must discover the true worth of this tremendous 

	This week, the yearly budget of one of the largest 
factories in Israel was published.  The incoming revenue was 
twelve million dollars, and yet the overall balance concluded 
with a loss of nineteen million dollars.  Why?  The 
explanation is quite simple: the factory had debts to pay.  So 
it is with us.  Yes, we keep the mitzvot, but how much of the 
investment do we owe to others?  How much is actually the 
fruit of our own labor?  Moshe Rabbenu, the humblest of men, 
wrestled with this dilemma.  Perhaps that simple Jew, crying 
out for his portion of meat, was on a higher spiritual plane 
than himself.  He was not granted the life of luxury which 
Moshe took for granted in Pharaoh's palace.  Perhaps, if this 
same Jew had grown up in Moshe's surroundings, he would also 
have reached the spiritual status of Moshe Rabbenu!

	With all of our good deeds, are we not yet needy and 
destitute?  "Ma'ase ish upekudato": who can be sure what 
mission God has chosen for him, having been privileged to be 
raised here in Israel, and not in Russia?  What are God's 

	Thus, without doubts or illusions, we open the book of 
selichot and proclaim:  "Needy and destitute, we knock at your 
doors.  You, God, are righteous and we are ashamed."

	And yet - this very neediness and poverty of spirit, can 
also serve as a source for God's mercy, if we are indeed aware 
of our spiritual emptiness, and reach the appropriate 

	The midrash (Shemot Rabbah 45:6) states:  "'I will spread 
all my goodness before you...'  At that moment, God showed him 
all the treasures reserved for the righteous.  He asked:  Lord 
of the Universe, to whom does this treasure belong?  To 
raisers of orphans.  To whom does this treasure belong?  To 
the masters of Torah.  And to whom does this treasure belong?  
To those who honor the masters of Torah.  And so on, for each 
treasure.  He saw a treasure larger than all the others, and 
asked:  To whom does this great treasure belong?  He 
responded:  He who has good deeds is paid accordingly.  And to 
he who has none - I give treasures for free."

	When a person approaches God with a sense of poverty, and 
says, "Lord of the universe, I have nothing.  I come before 
you empty-handed" - this is a mainspring of mercy.  However, 
our recognition of our spiritual poverty must be sincere.  If 
we are indeed destitute of mitzvot, we must act.  What are the 
conclusions and ramifications of this sense of emptiness?  If 
the emotion is sincere, it can become the source of bounty.

	Let me give you a word of advice for the days of 
judgment:  We have said that mitzvot are measured by the 
degree of fear of heaven involved.  The spiritual content and 
motivation are the essence of the mitzva.  However, some 
mitzvot have intrinsic worth regardless of the doer's 
intentions.  These are mitzvot between man and his fellow man.  
This is true to such an extent, that if a person gives charity 
"in order that [his] son will live", he is considered a 
totally righteous person.

	The Talmud in tractate Sotah 46b deals with the ceremony 
of "egla arufa" and the elders who declare:  'Our hands have 
not spilled this blood and our eyes have not seen [the 
murder]':  "Could we possibly imagine that the elders have 
spilled blood?  [The meaning of the verse therefore is that 
the elders declare:] 'It is not the case that he came to us 
and we sent him away without food; it is not the case that we 
saw him but did not accompany him on his way.'  R. Meir said, 
We coerce accompaniment, for there is no limit to the merit of 
accompanying someone, as it is written (Shoftim 1:24-25):  
'And the watchmen saw a man leaving the city, and said to him, 
show us the city gate and we will be kind to you...and he 
showed them the city gate.'  What was the kindness?  That they 
slew the entire city, and sent this man and his family to 
safety."  That selfsame man, who showed them the gate, merited 
the building of the city of Luz, which was never destroyed 
thereafter, and to which the very angel of death was denied 
admittance.  The Talmud concludes:  "This Canaanite, who did 
not speak with his mouth or walk with his legs, saved himself 
and his family for generations.  How much more worthy is the 
man who exerts himself to accompany another!"

	And the Talmud adds:  "How did he show them [the gate]?  
Chizkya said, he signaled with his mouth.  Rabbi Yochanan 
said, he showed them with his finger...because this Canaanite 
pointed with his finger, he saved himself and his family for 

	Chazal are trying to teach us something.  When a person 
finds himself in strange surroundings, and someone helps him, 
even with the smallest thing, by simply pointing his finger - 
there is no greater mitzva than this.

	Ours is a time with many strangers in our midst, who find 
themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.  Often, all the help 
they need is a finger to point them in the right direction.

	According to Chazal, smiling at someone is equivalent to 
giving him a glass of milk to drink.  This is true both in the 
yeshiva and outside.  There are so many new students who are 
in unfamiliar surroundings, who have not yet made the yeshiva 
their home.  Chazal tell us:  There is no limit to the 
obligation to help these newcomers find their way, with 
practical advice and personal warmth.

	None of us can be certain of his God-given mission in 
this world.  We all must continue to search.  However, one 
thing is clear: it is part of our role and obligation to help 
the newcomers in our midst.

	If we are looking for points of merit to gather before 
the day of judgment, this is the easiest type to acquire.  
There is no need for lofty spiritual intentions - only for 
positive actions.

	Needy and destitute, we approach God.  We must make every 
effort to bring some merit with us.  Each one of us must come 
with the sense of spiritual poverty, and accept upon himself 
to be better.

	"God is close to all who call him, to all who call him 
sincerely."  With this firm belief, with confidence that God 
comes close to all who call him with sincerity, we prepare to 
stand before him.  We approach the selichot to ask for mercy 
for ourselves, for all the Jewish people all over the world 
and especially for our holy land.

	May God grant us a year of life and peace, in both 
material and spiritual spheres.  May we be blessed with peace 
from our enemies without and tranquillity within, for 
ourselves and all of Israel, Amen.

(originally delivered on the first night of Selichot, 5750 
[1990]. Translated by Gila Weinberg)

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