In the introductory section of the Selichot service we proclaim, “We come before You without any kindness or deeds [to our credit] – we have knocked on Your door like mendicants and beggars.”
The simple explanation of this analogy is that we make no claims of deserving God’s kindness. We do not bring with us anything in exchange for God’s compassion, as our record is blemished and our good deeds are woefully inadequate. We stand before Him like a needy person begging for assistance, fully aware that the person in front of him owes him nothing. We have no delusions of being “owed” anything by God, and we therefore appeal strictly to His boundless mercy and compassion.
Rav Gedaliah Silverstone, in Darki Ba-kodesh, suggests an additional explanation of this passage from the Selichot service. He writes that the analogy is to a young, able-bodied person fully capable of securing employment to support himself, but chooses instead to beg for charitable donations. Naturally, those whom he approaches will be reluctant, at best, to offer him the assistance he requests. They would look askance at his preference to beg instead of work, and would see no reason to part with their hard-earned money to support somebody who chooses not to work for a livelihood.
Rav Silverstone suggests that as we begin the Selichot, we acknowledge not only that we did nothing to deserve God’s compassion, but that we are fully capable of earning it, but have chosen not to. We know full well that we are given the opportunity to repent, to change course, to grow and improve, and thereby be worthy of God’s kindness. But we have not done so. We have chosen to beg for undeserved compassion rather than work to make ourselves deserving. Like a lazy beggar who made the decision not to seek employment, we shamefully come before God and admit that we are taking the easy way out, asking for handouts instead of putting in the effort to perform genuine teshuva and make the changes we ought to be making.
Of course, we trust in God’s unlimited compassion and believe that He welcomes our prayers and supplications regardless of whether or not we are worthy of a favorable response. At the same time, however, the process of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im is intended, in part, to remind us that we can and must improve. The call to repentance announces to us that we do not need to remain stuck in the mire of mediocrity, that we are capable of more, and failing to work towards change signifies laziness or indifference. We therefore begin the Selichot prayers by declaring, “Lekha Hashem ha-tzedaka ve-lanu boshet ha-panim” – God is just and we are shamefaced. We are ashamed by the realization that we ask for “charity” instead of “working,” we plead for undeserved compassion rather than making the effort to deserve it. This shame is the crucial first step we need to take in order to initiate the process of meaningful change and growth that this period is meant to bring about.