By Nachum Mohl
Each year as the New Year approaches, together with its inherent feelings of awe, pious Jews begin early their preparations to greet the day of judgement. As the summer begins to wane and the day begins to shorten, the awesome days of heavenly scrutiny approach. Mankind begins to become cognizant of the eyes of the heavenly court focusing on the earthy creations.
With full realization that no man achieves true perfection in this world, yet neither is any man exempt from heavenly scrutiny, we begin our introspective soul searching to find our own blemishes, that we may make amends before the great day of judgement.
S'licot, (also called S'licos) whose ancient customs had the town beadle calling the pious to prayer in mid-night, continues in our generation in an albeit adaptive form. From the onset of the Jewish month of Elul, the shofar is sounded in the synagogue, calling us to consider our deeds, examine and search out those actions and thoughts which were improper. This introspectiveness will enable us to repent from unbecoming thoughts, speech, and actions that we have entertained and done. For if we do not give time to consider our past actions, can we regret or repent of them?
Slichot are those prayers that mark the beginning of the period of "return" to G-d. The custom of the Sephardim is to begin from the beginning of the month of Elul. The Ashkenazic Jews, meaning those who basically came from European lands, begin Saturday night, one week before Rosh Hashanah - considering that there are at least four days left until Rosh Hashanah. If there are less than four days from Saturday night until Rosh Hashanah, then the S'lichot prayers are begun the week earlier.
The reason is that there must be at least ten days of repentance for fasting before Yom Kippur. Since we do not fast on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the day before Yom Kippur and the Shabbat between, we add no less than four days before Rosh Hashanah.
S'lichot is an additional prayer service to that of the daily prayer service. Since the regular daily prayer service begins nominally early in the morning, the S'lichot are said before the regular daily prayers. In olden times, the daily Morning Prayer service was said at the break of dawn, therefore, the Slichot services were said before sunrise. Today, there are various customs, some recite the Slichot after midnight, some say them shortly before the sunrise, and others say them after sunrise before the normal daily prayers.
The purpose of the S'lichot is to prepare our hearts and minds to repent and to offer prayers to G-d that our repentance be accepted. S'lichot is Hebrew for pardon or forgiveness. The word can be heard on the buses in modern Israel; as a passenger will push his way to the door exclaiming, "s'licha", meaning excuse me, pardon me.
The repentance is divided into three separate but related concepts: abandoning sin, regret, and confession. Of course, sometimes the hardest part is identifying and admitting that a sin was done. This requires much soul searching and spiritual honesty. However, without intellectual honesty together with a true desire to cling to G-d, nothing spiritual can be accomplished. Once, however, that a sin has be identified, then the process of S'lichot can be begun.
Stage one is to forsake the sin. To request forgiveness and to continue to sin is ludicrous and will not enable G-d's forgiveness. The person must first separate himself from sin. This is generally a difficult process since one becomes attached to certain particular sins and separating from it is as difficult as it is for an alcoholic to separate from his drink, yet we are capable of it. G-d does not give us a task that we can not complete. Generally, when one requests the help of G-d, he is given it is a large measure.
The second stage is regret. Regret is not only that one did such an act and made himself into a despicable creature in the eyes of heaven, but also regret that he caused the holiness of G-d to distance itself from the person. Regret that is true regret is heartfelt and sustaining, it is this regret that will keep him distant from repeating the sin.
The third step is confession. Although we have introspectively identified the sin that we committed, and have truly regretted such a base action, nevertheless, we must confess it to G-d. In confessing our sin to G-d we are in reality asking Him to re-kindle the close relationship that He desires to have with all of his children. G-d being desirous of our repentance will accept our regrets and thereby enable Him to judge us favorable for the forthcoming year.
The above three steps are applicable for sins between man and G-d. If the sin is between man and man, then we must make restitution to the person we have harmed. If one asks us for forgiveness, we must grant it and not be revengeful. Similarly, if we request forgiveness from our fellow, and after three times he refuses to grant such forgiveness, a competent Rabbi should be consulted.
Therefore, once we have properly done the above, we are ready to enter into the day of judgement with simcha, like a litigant who knows that the judge will favor him. For if we have faithfully utilized the period of S'lichot, then we are assured of a positive judgement for the New Year. Obviously, we shall be happy on Rosh Hashannah.
from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine