In the introduction to our Selichot prayers, we proclaim that we do not approach God “with kindness” or “with [good] deeds” (“Lo be-chesed ve-lo be-rachamim”), but rather we come before the Almighty like impoverished paupers knocking on somebody’s door – “ke-dalim u-kh’rashim dafaknu delatekha.” We then beg, “We have knocked on Your doors, O compassionate and gracious one, please do not send us away empty-handed.”
It has been suggested that this prayer, in which we liken ourselves to paupers begging for assistance, can be explained on the basis of the story told in Masekhet Bava Metzia (83a) of a group of poor laborers. Rabba Bar Bar Chana hired this group as movers, and during their work they broke a barrel of wine. In lieu of payment for the damage they caused, Rabba took their garments. In desperation, they approached Rav, who promptly instructed Rabba to return their garments, explaining that although Rabba did, strictly speaking, have the legal right to seize their property, nevertheless, the verse in Mishlei (2:20) admonishes us to follow the “derekh tovim” – the “way of the good.” The proper thing to do, Rav told Rabba, was to waive his right to the laborers’ property. Afterward, these workers explained to Rav that they were very poor and could hardly afford any food. Rav then instructed Rabba to pay their wages, despite the costly damage they caused him. Although they did not, from a strict legal standpoint, deserve their wages, as they did not perform their work properly, nevertheless, Rav cited the conclusion of the aforementioned verse in Mishlei which commands us to follow the “orchot tzadikim” – the “paths of the righteous.”
Similarly, we approach God as we begin our Selichot prayer and openly acknowledge that we do not deserve our “wages.” We have broken many barrels, as it were, failing to properly do the jobs assigned to us. Nevertheless, we ask God to fulfill our wishes because we are poor and helpless. We can achieve nothing on our own, without His blessings and assistance, and we rely solely on Him. Like the poor laborers in the Gemara’s story, who did not deserve their payment but were awarded it anyway, we appeal to God’s righteousness and compassion and beg for our “wages” even though we did not always do our work satisfactorily.
Developing this analogy further, we, like Rabba Bar Bar Chana’s laborers, try to do our job properly, but we are not always as careful and meticulous as we should be. We are flawed and imperfect, and sometimes we are lazy, distracted and lax, resulting in “broken barrels” over the course of our work to serve God. Like the movers, we work hard, invest a great deal of time and effort to do what God expects of us, but we are frequently negligent and make costly mistakes. We thus come before the Almighty without making excuses for our failings, but appealing to His boundless compassion, affirming that we are poor and helpless, and dependent entirely upon His grace.