"Righteousness is Yours, O Lord, While Shame is Ours"
Based on a sicha by Harav
Translated by Yoseif Bloch
At the beginning of the laws of Rosh Ha-shana (Shulchan Arukh OC 581:1), the Mechaber rules:
We have the custom to get up at daybreak to say penitential prayers (Selichot) and supplications from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom Ha-kippurim.
The origin of this custom to start the daily recitation of Selichot from the beginning of the month of Elul is Moshe's forty-day stay on Mount Sinai after the sin of Golden Calf, pleading the case of the Jewish people, at the end of which God accepts his prayer. However, the Rema (ibid.) notes:
This is not the Ashkenazic custom; rather, from the beginning of the month, we have the custom to blow the shofar after the morning prayers, and there are places where they blow at the evening prayers as well. Instead, we rise at daybreak to say Selichot starting from the Sunday which precedes Rosh Ha-shana, and if Rosh Ha-shana falls on Monday or Tuesday, we begin on the Sunday of the previous week.
The Rema's determination that we say Selichot only from the Sunday preceding Rosh Ha-shana, and not from the beginning of the month of Elul, is a bit surprising. Typically, the Rema is more stringent than the Mechaber, so why should he be lenient here, of all places?
The answer to this may lie in the historical template of this custom. When Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi (Kuzari 3:5) defines a righteous person, one of the qualities that he notes is the use of one's imagination to reenact important events from Jewish history:
He sharpens the tools of thought, cleaning them off from all of his worldly thoughts. Using his memory, he marshals the most profound of his recollections in order to compare them to the sought-after sublime experience, whether it be the Convocation at Mount Sinai; standing with Avraham and Yitzchak on Mount Moria; or witnessing the Mishkan of Moshe, the ceremony of the service there, or God's glory filling the Temple.
It seems that just as a righteous person must envision the Convocation at Mount Sinai and the Temple service, he must also bring to mind the difficult experience of the first Elul that the Jewish people spent in the desert. What must it have been like, to go from the heights of anticipation preceding the Giving of the Torah, when God declared to the people (Shemot 19:6): "You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," to the worst of all disappointments, the moment that Moshe came down from the mountain with the tablets written "by the finger of God" (ibid., 31:18) and shattered them to bits!
We cannot handle such an experience. We know today that many of the greatest Jewish minds, from the masters of Musar and Chasidut to Talmudic scholars, underwent emotional breakdowns because they succeeded in experiencing these historical events in an authentic and personal way. Thus, we may say that the Rema is aware of this problem, and specifically because he is so strict and finds it impossible for us to return and to recreate the experience of that first Elul, he rules that we should start saying Selichot only from the Sunday preceding Rosh Ha-shana, and not from the beginning of the month.
Now let us turn to a central theme which appears in the text of the Selichot. In the opening line, we cite Daniel's confession (9:7): "Righteousness is Yours, O Lord, while shame is ours." We must ask the question: what shame are we talking about? Shame is the emotion we feel upon the revelation of a fact that we have striven to conceal. If so, what shame can we experience in relationship to the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who knows everything from the start?
Indeed, it appears that the shame here derives from ourselves. It comes from all of those acts which we have tried to justify, telling ourselves that that they are not so bad, ignoring our incaution, our lack of sympathy, our pettiness. When we examine ourselves, we discover that all year long we have been egotistical and self-centered. During this season, we realize that we excel in two areas: criticism and rationalization. Unfortunately, criticism is what we direct at other people, and rationalization at ourselves. Therefore, when we make a spiritual audit before Rosh Ha-shana and we find this hypocrisy, we are struck by shame.
Moreover, this shame is not solely because of our incaution and pettiness. The Gemara (Eruvin 13b) boils down the sum of man's existence to two duties: "He must inspect (yemashmesh) his actions" and "He must consider (yefashpesh) his actions." What is the difference between the two? The Mesillat Yesharim explains that just as one should examine himself and confess his negative actions, he must inspect his positive actions as well. Are our mitzvot infused with meaning? Do they have an authentic "taste?" Many times we reveal, to our dismay, that our mitzvot are dry and uninspired.
With this in mind, we can look at a famous verse in the Torah with a different perspective. According to Devarim 28:47, God decrees punishment "Because you did not serve Lord your God with happiness, with gladness and with abundance of everything." On the simplest level, this means that if one does not serve God while life is good, one will have to face circumstances which are less pleasant. However, we may read it another way: all the calamities which come upon us are because we serve God joylessly. We cannot find true happiness in our lives unless we can enjoy our observance of mitzvot and a Torah lifestyle. If, on the other hand, a spiritual journey begins joyfully, at the end of it one will reach faith and fear of Heaven as well.
On this occasion, we ask that the Holy One, Blessed be He, have compassion on us in the coming year. So many troubles have come upon the Jewish people, and we require great mercy from Heaven.
Nevertheless, to a certain extent, this is in our hand. A story of Rav Chasdai Crescas, which the Chida cites, comes to mind. Rav Chasdai's community was struck by drought, and the local priests blamed it on the Jews, giving them the choice of expulsion or conversion. Rav Chasdai declared a public fast, but days passed with no rain, as the decree loomed over the community. Finally, Rav Chasdai rose and declared to his congregation: "The tyrant is correct; we are the masters over the water! We hold in our hands the keys to great things: goodness and righteousness and mercy and water if only we would recognize it."
We pray to God that He grant us a blessed year, a ketiva ve-chatima tova, for us and for all of Israel, amen.
(This sicha was given on the first night of Selichot, 5765 .)