Selichos: The Ladder to Spiritual Success

Last year at this time, we explored the power of beginning Selichos right after Shabbos. This year, let us go back in time and also forward to the future.

Rav Aryeh Leib, the brother of the Alter of Kelm, a close talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter (Teshuvas Yisroel, page 63), wrote in a letter to his son, dated the first night of Selichos, that “the main purpose of the month of Elul is to prepare for the entire coming year.” He explains that by this statement he means to uproot the error that many people make. They think that Elul ends at Ne’ilah, when one has obtained forgiveness for the past and can return to “business as usual.” He rails against this fallacy and seeks to reinstate his rebbi’s famous adage that “all year is supposed to be like Elul, and Elul…well, Elul is Elul.”

Let us therefore listen to the words of one of the great Rishonim about Selichos. The Ran (Rosh Hashanah, page 3, Rif pages) writes that “those who begin Selichos on the 25th of Elul follow the opinion that the world was created during Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah was the sixth day of creation, when Adam Harishon was created. The beginning of creation was therefore on the previous Sunday.” The Ran goes on to declare that according to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 38b), Adam sinned and did teshuvah on that first Friday of creation. Then Hashem forgave him and told him that “this will be a sign for your children that just as you entered into judgment on this day and emerged absolved, so will your children enter into judgment on this very day and be forgiven.”

What is this reference to “your children”? Obviously, all of mankind emerged from Adam. Rav Avrohom Pam (quoted in Ohel Moshe, Badei Nechamah, page 692) offered an incredible interpretation and scenario. He quoted the posuk in Yoel (3:1) that “…It will happen after this [in the End of Days] that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy; your elders will dream prophetic dreams and your young men will see visions.” Rav Pam quoted the interpretation of the Malbim that the people closest to the spirit of Moshiach would experience the highest form of nevuah – prophesy – and those who were somewhat distanced from him would receive a diminished status of revelation. Therefore, the children who had not yet tasted sin would undergo a complete prophetic experience while adults would merely have a prophetic dream. Rav Pam added that the untainted children in the Messianic era would retain the lofty title of “Hashem’s offspring” more than the adults who had been sullied by iniquity.

It seems that Rav Pam was teaching us that when Hashem promised Adam that “your children will be absolved,” He meant specifically the pure and untarnished children who were like Adam before he sinned. In fact, the Ramchal (Derech Hashem) writes extensively about the fact that our ultimate purpose as a nation is to restore the pristine condition of mankind to that of Adam in Gan Eden before he transgressed. Indeed, the Alter of Slabodka would often comment that he had delivered at least a thousand mussar shmuessen in his lifetime, but they were essentially all about the same topic: returning to the level of Adam before he sinned. Therefore, when we approach the day that we were all created in the embodiment of Adam, we express our yearning to return, not only to a better condition, but to the ultimate perfection in which we were created. To do that, we must back up a few days so that we can attempt to reach our national birthday as close as possible to the spiritual level of our first ancestor. With Rav Pam’s help, we can now understand why there are so many references to our youth as a nation and to the original love that the Creator poured into His handiwork.

Rav Dovid Cohen (Birchas Yaavetz 1:17) suggests that this also explains the importance of the shofar in this season. He uses the metaphor (quoted here with a bit of poetic license) of a marriage counselor who asks a couple why they got married if they can’t seem to find much in common. Getting no rational response to his query, he suggests that they return to one of their earliest trips together after marriage. After not hearing from the couple for a while, the therapist calls them, only to hear the happy response, “Sorry, we don’t need your services anymore. We remembered why we got married in the first place.”

When Hashem “blew the breath of life” into Adam, all was perfect. There was a mutual love between the Creator and His sublime creature (see Eiruvin 18b). We therefore reenact that moment during Elul and especially our creation day, Rosh Hashanah, to return to the perfection of that magical time. Thus, Selichos and the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah act as a time machine, transporting us back to our creation and forward to the time when that exemplarity will return.

How can we possibly even attempt to return to the perfection of Adam Harishon? Perhaps a story with Rav Yisroel of Shklov, one of the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon, who later became the author of the classic sefer Pe’as Hashulchan, will help us. When Rav Yisroel was a young man, he joined a group of the Gaon’s disciples who were traveling to Eretz Yisroel to settle and institute their great rebbi’s halachic rulings and customs. One day, a dangerous storm battered the simple ship, threatening immediate death to all aboard. The captain was already preparing to abandon the ship when Rav Yisroel stood up, holding on for dear life, and made an audacious suggestion. He advised his fellow travelers that perhaps if they all confessed their sins and repented, they might be saved in the merit of their teshuvah. In light of the imminent danger of death, they all readily accepted the suggestion and decided to begin with the youngest and end with the oldest traveler.

The trembling young ben Torah began his “confession” as follows: “I must confess that for two years I lied to my father and mother. We lived right next door to the Vilna Gaon, with only a thin layer of wood separating our houses. My father could not bear to leave the house to go to work, since the sweet sounds of the Gaon learning filled the air and he could not tear himself away. The economic situation in the house became extremely dire and there was almost no bread, let alone any other food, available. I told my parents that I was receiving food in yeshiva, but in truth I lived for two years on the crumbs that fell to the floor.”

When Rav Yisroel heard this “confession,” he stopped the process and spoke loudly over the roar of the storm: “Today is the first day of Selichos and we would normally be reciting the words ‘please take note of our troubles and not of our sins.’ However, this one time we will actually ask Hashem to turn to our sins, such as enumerated by this young man. Such are the sins of Am Yisroel!”

When he finished his words, the storm subsided and all were saved.

We might now understand Rav Pam’s words a bit more deeply. Sometimes, the perceived sins of holy Jewish children are actually merits that can redeem us in difficult times. It is the innocence of Yemos HaMoshiach that radiates from those future nevi’im that can actually deliver us from, G-d forbid, death and destruction. It is me’ein – a microcosm – of the idyllic world of Moshiach and Olam Haba, when we will return to Adam Harishon before the sin. Even if there was a perceived sin, it could be understood as something noble and positive. Indeed, the Gemara (Eiruvin 18b) mentioned earlier referring to Adam as a chossid gadol – an extraordinarily pious man – was stated about him even after the sin. Indeed, the Gemara (Bava Basra 58a) describes Adam even in death as shining so brilliantly that even his heels were as blinding as the sun.

Perhaps we are not on even the level of the young man on the boat heading to Eretz Yisroel, but we can at least strive to do the best that we can, trying not to sin overtly and callously. If we do transgress occasionally, may it be of the kind the Berditchever describes when he explains the first verse in the haftorah of Shabbos Shuvah (Hosheia 14:1): “Return Yisroel unto Hashem…for you have stumbled in your iniquity.” The Kedushas Levi defends Klal Yisroel, as usual, by noting that we don’t plan to sin, G-d forbid, or rejoice in sinning. We merely stumble into sin and immediately regret what we have done. As one of his disciples puts it, “No Jew ever recited hineni muchan umezuman or lesheim yichud before transgressing. We certainly err, neglect and make mistakes, but we are not deliberately evil.

If we are not yet on the level of Rav Pam’s ideal, we can utilize the days of Selichos to try to get as close as possible. As we saw, there will several levels of greatness in the time of Moshiach. Let us try to fit into at least one of them. Perhaps we can discover some sins like those of Rav Yisroel of Shklov’s friend, who may have been uplifted by the beautiful sounds of the Vilna Gaon’s learning. We can emulate that, on our own level, by spending more time in the bais medrash during these days of Selichos. Maybe at least our sins will upgrade sheker to emes, like the idealistic young traveler to Eretz Yisroel. Teshuvah is a slow process and Selichos allows us to take the wonderful ladder of spiritual growth one step up at a time.