Selichos is the formal beginning of the Yomim Noraim, the yemei harachamim veharatzon. As the chazzan begins Ashrei followed by Kaddish in the distinctive Yomim Noraim nusach, every Yid is gripped by hisorerus to become closer to Hashem. Here is a collection of stories and insights on Selichos and teshuvah.
Over Our Heads in Sin?
The Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Rebbe related that he once heard a story from Rav Yehuda of Dzhikov that made a profound impression on him.
The Dzhikover Rebbe once said at his tish that the Ateres Yeshuah of Dzhikov had to visit Vienna and noticed that there was a street cleaner cleaning the streets. The Ateres Yeshuah approached the street cleaner and asked him, “Why do you have to clean the street? In no time at all the street will become dirty again. Why should you waste your time every day?”
The cleaner replied, “Herr Rabbiner, if I would not constantly clean the streets, the garbage would pile up above our heads!”
The Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Rebbe continued, “It is the same thing with teshuvah. People ask: What is the point of doing teshuvah if after the Yomim Noraim so many of us return to our old ways? The answer is that if we would not clean up our aveiros, they would be so numerous that we would be over our heads in sin and they would engulf us. Boruch Hashem, if we do teshuva, even if we revert to some of those same sins, they are once again manageable and able to be cleansed” (Zichron Yehuda).
Selichos, Golus and a Potch
In most of the Selichos, Klal Yisroel does not ask Hashem to forgive us for the sins that we have transgressed over the course of the year. Rather, the majority of the Selichos are a harrowing depiction of the golus, the ravages of exile that plague Klal Yisroel from both within and without. What does this have to do with Selichos?
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel once said, “The underlying characterization of golus is being distanced from Hashem. We do not see our Father. We feel distanced and alienated from Him. We have no relationship with Him. When a father gives a potch to his son, he does so in order for his son to realize that his father is there. When a son comes to his father, not to anyone else, after getting a potch and tells him how much it hurts, that itself is seeking forgiveness. The fact that he is returning to his father and telling his father how difficult golus is in itself is a request for forgiveness.”
When Rav Wachtfogel was asked what part of Selichos a person should emphasize, he said, “One must say everything and not cut out pieces. Nevertheless, if there is any point in the Selichos where one feels particularly inspired, he should stop and say it slowly, with great kavonah. The ultimate purpose of saying Selichos is to be aroused to teshuvah” (Leket Reshimos).
“I Don’t Want to Do Teshuvah!”
Once, there were three Chassidim who were traveling together to Sanz to bask in the presence of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz. On the way, they were talking about avodas Hashem and they all concluded that it was imperative that they do teshuvah. When the first Chossid entered the chamber of the Divrei Chaim, he bared his heart, exclaiming, “Rebbe, I feel that I need to do teshuvah.” The Divrei Chaim looked at him and said, “Who is stopping you?! If you want to do teshuvah, go do teshuvah!”
The second Chossid received a similar answer when he told the rebbe that he wanted to do teshuvah. The third Chossid saw what had happened with his peers, and when he entered the rebbe’s chambers, he said, “Rebbe, I am in terrible shape. I don’t want to do teshuvah because if I really wanted to do teshuvah, I would have done so a long time ago” (Rav Eliezer Dovid Friedman).
Their New Year and Our New Year
Rav Yechezkel Abramsky stood in front of his kehillah in Slutzk on the night of Yom Kippur and related the following story that had transpired just a few days earlier.
“It was in the early, pre-dawn hours of the morning during the days of Selichos. As I left my house in the morning, I noticed a simple, elderly Jew running as fast as he could here in Slutzk. ‘Reb Yid,’ I stopped him, ‘why are you running so fast? To where does a Yid of your age have to run?’
“‘Rebbi,’ the Yid replied, ‘I am running so that I don’t come late to Selichos. The Yom Hadin is coming!’
“I looked at him and countered, ‘Which Yom Hadin?’
“He spluttered in response, ‘What do you mean ‘Which Yom Hadin’?! In just a few days, Hashem will be sitting on His throne of judgment and judging me!’
“I asked him, ‘What do you mean? Did you get a summons from a court to appear before a judge in a few days? Perhaps a policeman came to tell you that you better be in court on such and such a day?’
“The simple Yid looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. ‘Rebbi!’ he exclaimed, ‘Did you forget that in just a couple of days it will be Rosh Hashanah? Rosh Hashanah is the Yom Hadin and I believe with complete faith that we will be judged according to our actions. That is why I am running so fast to shul so that I can pour out my heart before Hashem that He sweeten my gezeirah for the good!’
“As a result of this conversation,” Rav Yechezkel said, “I better understood a posuk in Tehillim that we say during the Yomim Noraim. We say, ‘To Your judgment they stood on this day because all are Your servants (Tehillim 119-91).’ They stood, on their own, without a summons from the court or the palace. They stood of their own volition. This itself shows that ‘they are all your servants.’”
Rav Yechezkel went on to depict the great qualities of the Yidden, who awaken every day for Selichos, saying, “Look how different the Yidden are than the others! The prevailing custom in the world is that on their holiday, and especially for their New Year, they take pride in their accomplishments and haughtily exclaim, ‘We made this and that amount of money this year. We produced this and that amount of military equipment. We created this and that number of jobs. We did this, that and the other…’ That is not what Yidden do. We are zochalim veroadim, shaking and trembling before Hashem. Like the poor and destitute we knock on Your door! Every Yid stands like a poor man shaking at the door, afraid that perhaps the owner will drive him away in shame. That is why we beg, ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, na al teshiveinu reikom milfonecha. Please do not turn us away empty-handed’” (Melech Beyafyo).
The Proper Place for Enthusiasm
Rav Hershel Zaks, a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim, related a story from his youth that transpired on the night of Selichos.
“It was during the last years of the Chofetz Chaim’s life, on the first night of Selichos. I was still a child, but I accompanied my grandfather to say Selichos with the talmidim of the Radiner Yeshiva. As a young child full of enthusiasm, I began to say the Selichos with tremendous kavonah and inspiration. Suddenly, my grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim, turns to me and says, ‘My dear child, it is a pity that you are investing all of your energy and primary kavonah in the recitation of piyutim. They are not the main part of Selichos. It is proper to have even greater kavonah and beg Hashem with even more enthusiasm during the actual pesukim that we say towards the end of the Selichos.’”
Rav Hershel commented that this lesson remained with him for the rest of his life (Me’ir Einei Yisroel).
Our Shame is Our Redeeming Factor
The first part of Selichos begins with the words, “Lecha Hashem hatzedokah.. Yours Hashem is righteousness and ours is shamefacedness.”
We are saying that the attribute of tzedokah, righteousness, belongs to Hashem. That is His positive attribute. But what is our positive attribute? The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim would say that the very fact that we are ashamed of our conduct, that we have boshes ponim, is our positive attribute and contributes to our being forgiven. The Selichos continues, “As paupers and beggars we knock on your doors.” Here we are saying that even that positive attribute of being shamefaced is not sufficient. We are still considered paupers and beggars because we should be more ashamed of our conduct (The Slonimer Rebbe, Betzilah Demehemenusa).
Closeness to Hashem for 40 Days
One of the questions on the minds of every oveid Hashem during this time of teshuvah of the Yomim Noraim is, “What will be after it is over?” We all know that more often than not, once the days of teshuvah end and we return to “regular life,” we revert to our old habits. Therefore, why should we ever try to invest so much effort and energy into the teshuvah process if it is so fleeting?
The truth is that anyone with seichel knows that this is not really a valid question, especially because we know that those who go through the teshuvah process systematically actually do change. Systematically means not jumping steps and trying to reach high spiritual levels that are not really attainable, but rather proceeding according to the rules of Chazal and slowly ascending the ladder of teshuvah. Perhaps not everything will remain for the long term after Yom Kippur is over, but it is impossible that there won’t remain some positive advancement.
Nevertheless, according to the prevailing attitude that most people slowly lose any change after the Yomim Noraim, it is important to quote the words of Rav Avrohom Pollack, menahel ruchani of the Slabodka Yeshiva, after he asked this very question to the Chazon Ish.
The Chazon Ish asked him sweetly, “Is it a small thing to become close to Hashem for a few weeks? Is that something to sniff at? There is nothing greater than that!”
What the Chazon Ish is saying is that even if nothing remains, the very fact that during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah we were close to Hashem, that itself is a colossal achievement that we must appreciate and cherish (Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein).
Begging Like a Pauper
During the First World War, when Rav Yissochor Dov of Belz fled Belz and was residing in the Hungarian city of Holoshitz, there was a prominent, successful businessman who would often spend Shabbos in the rebbe’s presence.
Once, that man came for the Shabbos of Selichos and planned on staying over until Sunday so that he could say the first Selichos with the rebbe, but on Motzoei Shabbos, he received an urgent message that he must return home immediately. The Yid did not want to return home before taking leave of the rebbe and receiving his brocha. Thus, despite the fact that the rebbe’s door was not generally open before Selichos, he convinced the rebbe’s attendants to let him in. When he entered the rebbe’s room, he was met with an unforgettable sight. The rebbe was holding a Selichos in his hand, perusing the Selichos with tears streaming from his eyes. He was talking to himself, saying, “We say, ‘As paupers and beggars we knock at Your doors.’ A beggar also has to know how to knock. If he bangs the door down, the owner will be very upset with him, exclaiming, ‘Is that how you act when seeking a donation?’”
The person who knocks on the door and tells the baal habayis, “You are obligated to give me a donation,” just makes the baal habayis angry and uninterested in giving him anything. If, however, a person knocks softly and quietly explains, “You don’t owe me anything, but perhaps you could give me something. I am so desperately in need of your help,” the baal habayis will most likely look favorably upon his request. Similarly, when we say Selichos, we cannot come before Hashem with a demand. We must realize that Hashem has no obligation to us whatsoever. On the contrary, we are obligated to Him. We can only beg Him the way a pauper begs for a matnas chinom, a free gift.”
Forgiving a Great Sinner
When Rav Chaim Meir of Vizhnitz became Vizhnitzer Rebbe in 1936 with the passing of his father, the Ahavas Yisroel of Vizhnitz, he candidly exclaimed, “Ribbono Shel Olam, if You were already mochel someone in the world who was worse than me, then please forgive me too and cleanse me from my sins. Even if there has never been a greater sinner in Your world than me, please help me be that vessel through which you can show the entire world the greatness and extent of Your kindness, that You are mochel and forgiving of an even great sinner such as me. So, please, Hashem, I beg you to forgive and pardon my sins…”
The Sephardic Nusach
Rav Aharon of Belz would spend the summer in the Katamon section of Yerushalayim. Come Rosh Chodesh Elul, he would hear the niggun of Selichos emanating from the shul of his Sephardic neighbors. He would derive great pleasure from the nusach, commenting that certainly the niggunim that they sang were sung in the Bais Hamikdosh, because they were the ones who went into the golus of Bavel, and their songs and minhagim went with them and were passed down from one generation to the next (Mayan Habrocha).
Why Do We Daven for the Geulah During Selichos?
When one looks at the Selichos, one sees that most of the tefillos focus on Klal Yisroel, the geulah, and supplications for Hashem to rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh. We don’t find much about asking Hashem to grant us mechilah, goodness and prosperity for the coming year. Why?
Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn, rov of Komemius, would say that, in actuality, asking Hashem for a good year for ourselves and our land is not connected to the theme of most Selichos. The reason for this is that the primary hashpa’ah to Klal Yisroel should come through the Bais Hamikdosh. Whether we have difficulties in the spiritual realm and the material realm is a result of the fact that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, thereby blocking the shefa. Therefore, during the Selichos, we describe the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh and the restoration of Hashem’s Shechinah to the Bais Hamikdosh. We are also davening for the return of the hashpa’ah, both spiritual and material, that was lost with the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh so that we can once again merit Hashem’s spiritual closeness and, with it, material bounty as well (Igros HaRav Binyomin).
Leaving the Neshamah and Coming with the Flesh
Rav Sholom Schwadron, in his shmuess before Selichos, quoted a thought that he heard from his rebbi, Rav Leib Chasman, mashgiach of Chevron. Rav Leib would say that the Selichos begins with the words, “Shomeia tefillah odecha kol bosor yovo’u – You who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come.”
When a person goes to Selichos, the proper thing to do is to leave one’s guf, one’s body, one’s flesh, at home and come with his neshomah, with the feeling that only spiritual aspirations are important. What often happens, however, is the opposite. We leave the neshomah at home and come to Selichos with our bodies – “to You all flesh will come” (Kol Dodi Dofek).
Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, rosh yeshiva of Kaminetz, was known for the tremendous efforts that he invested in the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim. When his father, Rav Shmuel Dovid Leibowitz, took ill, he was brought to Vilna to consult with the best doctors, but despite all efforts, his health continued to deteriorate. Rav Boruch Ber sat by his father’s bedside day and night, refusing to leave. It came to a point, however, that Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim began to worry for his health. They felt that it was important for the rosh yeshiva to get a bit of rest. They promised Rav Boruch Ber that they would sit by his father’s bed and watch over him for a few hours so that Rav Boruch Ber could get some desperately needed rest. Rav Boruch Ber reluctantly agreed.
A few days later, Rav Boruch Ber’s father passed away while his father was learning with his grandson, Rav Yaakov Moshe Leibowitz, Rav Boruch Ber’s son. Rav Shmuel Dovid was in the middle of explaining the words of Tosafos when he suddenly stopped talking. Rav Yaakov Moshe looked up from his Gemara and saw that his grandfather had suddenly passed away. Rav Boruch Ber was filled with pain and remorse. He felt that perhaps he had not done enough for his father, and if he would have done more, he might have been able to prolong his life. He was filled with such grief that his family was scared that it would adversely affect his health.
During that period, a gathering of gedolim took place in Vilna and the Chofetz Chaim went to Vilna to participate. Rav Boruch Ber met with the Chofetz Chaim and unburdened his heart to the elderly gadol hador, explaining how guilty he was feeling and how much pain he was experiencing because of the possibility that he had not fulfilled his obligation of kibbud av in the best possible way.
The Chofetz Chaim responded by speaking about the maalos of teshuvah. He explained that teshuvah doesn’t only atone for sins, but transforms one into a completely different person. Therefore, a person should not pain himself over what was, concluded the Chofetz Chaim.
Rav Boruch Ber would always say, “The Chofetz Chaim literally revived my soul.”
The words of the Chofetz Chaim had such an impact on Rav Boruch Ber that Rav Mordechai Schwab, mashgiach of Mesivta Bais Shraga in Monsey, related that when he was a talmid at the Kaminetz Yeshiva, Rav Boruch Ber once spoke on Rosh Hashanah and said, “Today, in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, the Chofetz Chaim mamish saved me!” We see from here that even years after the story transpired, Rav Boruch Ber was still deriving profound chizuk from the words of the Chofetz Chaim (Harav Hadomeh Lemalach).