20th Elul – relying on God’s mercy

Elul 20 28th August

Leil Selichot

Leil Selichot ( the night of penitential prayers in preparation for the Yamim Noraim)occurs after nightfall this Saturday evening.

This service is usually said on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, although it may be done on the Saturday evening the week before if Rosh Hashanah is early in the week. Then there are selichot services on the following early morning throughout Elul.

Selichot are prayers which ask for forgiveness (you may be used to hearing the word “selicha” – please or excuse me – in Israel). A major theme of the selichot service will be the repeated recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, derived from the biblical verses Exodus 34:6-7 – Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun,  Erech apayim v’rav Chesed v’Emet. Notzer Chesed la’alafim, Nosei Avon v’fesha v’hata’a v’nakeh” _ The Eternal, The Eternal, God of mercy and grace, slow to anger and filled with lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin and who cleanses us of guilt.”

The locus of this verse is immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, when God had threatened to destroy the people of Israel rather than forgive them (32:10) and Moses had to plead and persuade God to stay with the people. Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) comments that Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of successful intervention on their behalf, but God was moved  and so appeared to Moses and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this (verse) in its proper order, and I will forgive them.” . No wonder then that the selichot services are built around the recitation of this verse, and no wonder that this period, while solemn and reflective in nature is not depressed or fatalistic. The possibility – indeed the fact of – forgiveness from God, is available to us, as long as we do the work of teshuvah, of acknowledging and repairing our mistakes, of resolving to do better in the coming year and making the behavioural changes to do so, of accepting our full selves and moving on.

In Elul we are told, God is close. The doors to mercy and forgiveness are open. And like every journey, it begins with the first step.

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