Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Secret of Selihot

This is the text of the d'var Torah I delivered this Shabbat at Seudah Shelishit at Sephardic Bikur Holim in Seattle.
This past week marked the yahrtzeit of Mr. Shmuel Zanvel Mordechai Schwartz, zekher tzadik l’vrakha, a man who was nothing less than a father to my wife and our son’s namesake. I use the phrase, zekher… tzadik… l’vrakha...remember the righteous for a blessing—not merely as an honorific, but, as Rashi explains in his commentary on Mishlei (10:7), as a call to action: “המזכיר צדיק מברכו“ when we remember a tzadik, a righteous man, we must talk about what made that individual so great. This is an honor that befits the righteous, but it is also of great benefit to us—the life and deeds of the righteous inspire and guide us in our lives: the blessedness of their life becomes a blessing to us.
I remember Mr. Schwartz, who was a Satmar Hasid, telling me once—in an almost apologetic form—that the levush—the outer trappings—was not the true hasidut (piety). He didn’t spell out what that truth was and I think this was for a reason. Something which is deeply known on an experiential level only loses its luster when an attempt is made to put it into words. (Can one truly put into words one’s love for one’s spouse or children? Can one truly describe the beauty of a rainbow or the majesty of Mt. Rainier?) However, I believe his hasidut was on display when in literally a moment’s notice, he and his wife, שתבדל לחיים ארוכים, made my wife a part of their family.  Mr. Schwartz’s warmth and kindness will always be for us the ultimate example of gemilut chasadim. He radiated the unity between religious dedication and a deeply kind and caring way of being. In the following words I will try and say something about this unity of one’s relationship to G-d and one’s relationship with his fellow human being. Of course, no words will ever live up to his glowing example.
On Monday, early in the morning, before tefilla, we will begin to say the selihot—penitentiary prayers that we will continue to say up and through Yom HaKippurim.[1]
The center-piece of the selihot is the recitation of the 13 midot of rachamim, or, attributes of mercy.
וַיַּעֲבֹר ה' עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, ה' ה' אֵ-ל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת:  נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים: 
And Hashem passed before him and He called out: Hashem, Hashem! A compassionate and gracious G-d, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass and offence, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of the fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth.” (translation taken from Robert Alter’s, The Five Books of Moses)
Though there is no record of the selihot service in Talmudic literature (Soloveitchik, J.B. Tefilla, Vidui v’Teshuva. Divrei Hashkafa. 1994.) we learn in Mesekhet Rosh Hashana (17b) the following regarding this formula:
Rebbe Yochanan said: If it had not been written in Scripture, it would not have been possible to say. When the verse says that G-d passed before Moshe’s face and called out (the 13 attributes of mercy) we learn that G-d cloaked Himself in the fashion of a prayer-leader and showed Moshe the arrangement of the prayers. G-d explained to Moshe, “Whenever Israel sins they should perform before Me this service and I shall give them pardon.”
It is worth investigating how this works. To do this we will need to take a few steps back and understand the context of this formula.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d was ready to sever His relationship with B’nei Yisrael. Moshe, in turn, pleaded with G-d to forgive B’nei Yisrael and restore His relationship with them. However, Moshe goes about this in what seems to be a peculiar way. He says:
 “הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ
“Let me know your ways and I shall know you, so that I shall find favor in your eyes.”
In response to this request, G-d tells Moshe that he has, indeed, found favor in His eyes and He will grant Moshe’s request. To this, Moshe requests that G-d reveal His כבוד, His glory to him. G-d agrees to grant this request, but with an important limitation—Moshe will not see G-d’s face, only His back. Moshe is instructed to carve new tablets to replace the ones he broke and ascend the mountain where he will behold G-d’s glory. Once Moshe is firmly secured in a crag of the mountain, G-d passed before him and called out the 13 attributes.
The commentaries—both classic and modern—struggle to make sense of this story—especially Moshe’s request. What knowledge was Moshe seeking? How would that knowledge help reestablish the bond between G-d and His people? How did revealing His 13 attributes of mercy answer Moshe’s question?
I would like to suggest that the answer to these questions goes to the heart of Judaism’s unique approach to theology. In Judaism the moment our gaze turns to behold G-d’s glory, we are immediately cast back and forced to take an account of man. Moshe seeks to know G-d, but what he gets are His attributes of mercy—which are, in the spirit of והלכת בדרכיו (Devarim 28:9), the injunction to follow in His ways—a guide, above all, to who man must be. Our theology—an account of G-d—always returns us to anthropology—an account of man.
Rambam spells this out explicitly in the first chapter of Hilkhot De’ot, the Laws of Character—or, perhaps a better translation for de’ot would be: Mentalities:
וּמְצֻוִּין אָנוּ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכִים אֵלּוּ הַבֵּינוֹנִיִּים, וְהֶם הַדְּרָכִים הַטּוֹבִים וְהַיְּשָׁרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו" ( דברים כח,ט) כָּךְ לִמְּדוּ בְּפֵרוּשׁ מִצְוָה זוֹמַה הוּא נִקְרָא חַנּוּן, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא רַחוּם, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה רַחוּם; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא קָדוֹשׁ, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה קָדוֹשׁוְעַל דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ קָרְאוּ הַנְּבִיאִים לָאֵל בְּכָל אוֹתָן הַכִּנּוּיִין, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר תָּמִים גִּבּוֹר וְחָזָק וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן--לְהוֹדִיעַ שֶׁאֵלּוּ דְּרָכִים טוֹבִים וִישָׁרִים הֶם, וְחַיָּב אָדָם לְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בָּהֶן וּלְהִדַּמּוֹת כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ.
We are commanded to follow the middle-way—that is, the good and just ways—as it says, “And you shall follow His ways.” Such is how this mitzvah has been explained: Just as He is called gracious, so to you must be gracious; just as He is called compassionate, so to you must be compassionate; just as He is called holy, so to you must be holy. In this vein the prophets called G-d by all of these characteristics: slow to anger; abounding in kindness; righteous; just; perfect; mighty; strong; etc.—to teach us that these are good and just ways. A person is obligated to conduct himself by them and to imitate them to the degree that he is capable.
This leads to the following conclusion: the knowledge of His attributes is the knowledge of the path that man must follow. The petition before Hashem with the 13 midot of rachamim is no magical formula, but, in fact, from this perspective, guidance for how man must conduct himself.
The moment we seek G-d, we are confronted with the depth of what it means to be human—to imitate G-d in all His ways. This is why—as we are so often reminded by our prophets—the service of G-d can never be separated from our service of our fellow man. This is one of the many lessons my wife and I learned from Mr. Schwartz, זכר צדיק לברכה, and this, I believe, is the secret of the Selihot.
May we all merit the fulfillment of our prayers and have a truly blessed Elul—Shabbat Shalom.

[1] This is the custom of Sepharadim.