With only 30 days left in the year, Elul is a time of yearning, forgiveness and return.
(Continued from last week)
2. Reciting Selichot.
The Selichot prayers begin in Elul (Sefardic Jews begin on the first of Elul, while Ashkenazi Jews begin the last Motzei Shabbat) and continue until Yom Kippur. The main theme in selichot is the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy. God revealed His true nature to Moses when he begged to know God as much as a mortal can.
Ultimately God is unknowable. Our ability to know is limited by the fact that we live in time which distorts our sense of reality. We are physical and have short lives, and have enormous emotional subjectivity. Because God is unknowable and transcendental, we try to make Him smaller, so to speak, so that He seems more approachable. The worst manifestation of this was the building of the golden calf. Moses wanted words that would give the Jewish people access to God as much as humanly possible.
Each of the 13 attributes exist within us as well. When we join together as a group and proclaim these attributes aloud as we do during the Selichot prayers, we affirm who God is and who we are. This has such force that the Talmud tells us that the attributes always generate change.
Here is a brief rendition of the attributes and their meaning.
1-2: “God,” “God” (the four-letter Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh):
The Almighty is telling us that He is unchanging. He has infinite compassion for us before we sin, knowing that we are only human, and when we fail to live up to our humanity He is open to our changing and returning. Because of this, His name, which means “Being,” is invoked twice, once for before and once for after our fall and return.
3. “The Force”: Unlike human compassion that is limited by our patience and fragility, God’s compassion is comparable to an unstoppable force.
4. “Who is Merciful”: He gives to the “poor”; those of us who are impoverished spiritually
5. “And full of Grace”: He gives freely and in abundance
6. “He is Patient”: God gives us time to change, and when we must endure suffering in order to change our direction, He gives it only to the degree that the person’s individual situation demands.
7. “and has much kindness”: God chooses to judge us favorably when our motivations are mixed
8. “and true”: Even if someone has made many mistakes and done terrible things, God will still reward him for whatever good he has done.
9. “creates kindness for thousands of generations”: He empowers the forces of good to endure forever. An example of this would be that literally everyone who is alive today is affected by the goodness that Abraham, our forefather, did in his lifetime
10. “Carries sins of desire”: God will allow sins to act as a springboard to bring a person to a higher level than they ever could have achieved without repentance. An example would be the case of someone who takes on himself to keep kosher, and is tempted every time he passes a non-kosher eatery.
11. “and sins of rebellion”: Even when a person is so full of self that he feels a need to control or attack every human or God-given law, if he opens himself God will broaden him enough to see beyond the limits of his ego.
12. “and sins of negligence”: When the source of sin is a passive, uncaring and alienated relationship to life, the source is invariably despair that comes from thinking, “Nothing I do makes much difference anyway.” God will give the greatest gift of all – hope — when there is willingness to take responsibility. This is true even if the underlying attitude has been there for years.
13. “and cleanses.” Even the callousness that is the seemingly inescapable result of developing bad patterns of responding to life and to other people can literally disappear through tshuvah, repentance.
When we mirror these traits to all of the imperfect people in our lives (meaning everyone including ourselves), we find the Godliness that is latent in all of us, and strengthen its voice.
When we do our best to change, we must make an honest appraisal of who we are, and the choices we made to emerge as we are now. When we do this honestly, we will notice that we have made mistakes.
The first step to change is confessing what went wrong within us to God. No person should be involved. No one can give spiritual clarity; no one can erase spiritual and emotional damage. The second step is to recognize that all bad choices are ultimately damaging, and to give yourself permission to feel regret. The third step is to make practical down to earth changes in behavior.
If the sins affect other people, then there are two additional steps. The first one is to make material restitution where that is a relevant possibility (for instance returning money that you know is not yours if you use the Torah’s standards), and the second is to achieve reconciliation by asking forgiveness.
Let’s be sure to use the month of Elul well, to let it draw us to living authentically, and to feel greater openness, love and forgiveness.
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