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How Do We Measure a Year? Reflections on S’lichot

by Cantor Jacob Niemi

“How do we measure a year?” This question posed by Jonathan Larson in his signature musical Rent seeps into our consciousness, as we find ourselves in a transition between seasons, summer fading away into autumn. And for Jews, preparing for the upcoming Days of Awe, the question looms even more prominently.

In anticipation of the Jewish New Year, we will observe the service of S’lichot at Temple Beth El on Saturday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m. Our service will include stories from sacred texts, as well as inspirational liturgy, all intended to help direct our focus to the tasks of penitence and the spiritual work of the Days of Awe. We will also ceremonially change the covers on our Torah scrolls from the multicolor covers that they wear throughout the year to their white High Holy Day vestments.

In preparation for this powerful ritual, I offer some reflections on S’lichot, including two narratives from the Torah that illuminate its significance.

As we’re called upon to measure our days, to look inward, and to consider our relationships with one another and with the divine, it can be beneficial to have ways to mark time and to orient ourselves. Fortunately, our calendar is full of rituals and liturgy that function like signposts, helping to give us a sense of where we are in the year and guiding us through journeys of emotional and spiritual growth.

Some of these signposts are subtle, a change of words in a particular prayer in the liturgy, or a special Torah portion whose selection for that time of year may or may not immediately resonate with us. Others are intentionally jarring, stirring us out of complacency, preparing us for the spiritual work that the upcoming cycle will demand of us (perhaps the best example of this is the sounding of the shofar).

In this time leading up to the Days of Awe, all these signs, whether subtle or striking, become explicit and tangible in the observance of S’lichot. The shofar is sounded once more, the Torah vestments are changed to white, and the liturgy introduces themes that will recur throughout the holiday season, even containing text that will return on Yom Kippur.

But what are these themes? What exactly is the message that the composers of the S’lichot liturgy hoped would carry throughout the days that follow?

To answer this, at least in part, we can start by looking at two biblical narratives that form a theological bedrock for the S’lichot and High Holy Day liturgy, each recounting an instance in which the Israelites sinned against God, faced punishment, repented, and were ultimately forgiven. The first of these is perhaps among the most famous sins in the Torah, the sin of the golden calf.

Many are familiar with the first part of this story. Frustrated with the amount of time that Moses had spent up on Mount Sinai, supposedly receiving the commandments from God, the Israelites began to worry that Moses might not ever return. They insisted that Aaron, Moses’s brother, make them a new god. And so, they gathered up all their gold, melted it down, and fashioned it into the form of a calf, which they then began to worship.

But rather than focus on the punishment they received for this sin, I want to direct our attention to what happened after they repented, and after Moses interceded on their behalf. Moses pleaded to be able to behold God’s presence. But, according to God, one cannot see God’s face and live. So, God instructed Moses to stand in the cleft of a rock, where God would pass before him, so that Moses could see God’s back:

The Eternal came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name Eternal. The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed: “The Eternal! The Eternal! A God gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness, extending lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5-7; source pronouns retained intentionally)

 

One might notice ambiguity in the pronouns in this passage. Who is standing with whom? Before whom is the Eternal passing? The rabbinic sages of the Talmud noted this ambiguity and offered the following interpretation:

The verse states: “The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself (lit. “passed before himself”) like a prayer leader (i.e. with a prayer shawl) and showed Moses an order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order, and I will forgive them. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b)

 

This “order of prayer” that Rabbi Yochanan mentions is what has become our liturgy of S’lichot, a liturgy that is built around those very attributes that God proclaimed. Our sages have come to refer to these as the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy: “(1) The Eternal! (2) The Eternal! (3) A God (4) gracious (5) and compassionate, (6) slow to anger, (7) abounding in lovingkindness (8) and [abounding in] faithfulness (9) extending lovingkindness to the thousandth generation (10) forgiving iniquity, (11) [forgiving] transgression, (12) and [forgiving] sin,” and (13) remitting punishment (note that this last attribute changes the biblical text, which is an interesting conversation for another time).

Another name for the service of S’lichot is actually Seder B’rit Sh’losh Esrei, “The Order of the Covenant of Thirteen.” And this is the covenant, as laid out in that Talmudic text, that whenever we sin, whenever we miss the mark with our actions, or with the ways in which we relate to one another and to God, we can recall these attributes of compassion and mercy.

We can remind ourselves that God is gracious and compassionate, and that we are all called upon to strive to be gracious and compassionate as well. And knowing this, we can remind ourselves that the work of sincere repentance is both worthy and worthwhile.

The second passage that informs the theology of S’lichot comes from the book of Numbers. It recounts what is sometimes referred to as “the sin of the twelve spies.” Without going into detail (join us in our S’lichot worship at Temple Beth El to hear the full story), the most outstanding moment occurs when Moses shows a bit of chutzpah, reminding God of the attributes God had previously proclaimed. God then responds by saying, “I forgive, as you have said” (Numbers 14:20).

As we enter this season of the Days of Awe, let us do so with gracious chutzpah, with an expectation of lovingkindness from God to us, from one another, and from ourselves.

October 14, 2019 15 Tishrei 5780