This Saturday night we begin reciting the Selichot prayers in preparation for the High Holidays. The custom is to recite the first Selichot prayer Saturday night at midnight and the following Selichot prayers each day, early in the morning. The reason these prayers are called Selichot is because “Selicha” means forgiveness and in these prayers we recite numerous times the “Thirteen attributes of G-d’s mercy”. The recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is central to the high holiday services since the Torah teaches us that when they are recited by the Jewish people, they will certainly bring about forgiveness.
As we begin our prayers for the new year, it is important that we not only pray for our physical needs, but, also pray for the spiritual. There is a Chassidic Story which illustrates this point.
Reb Shmuel Munkes was once traveling to Liozna to spend the “Days of Awe” with his Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. In the midst of his tiresome journey, he spent the night in a wayside inn.
It was several days before Rosh Hashona and Jews all over the world were rising at midnight and hurrying to Synagogue for Selichot, the solemn prayer that ushers in the High Holiday season. The elderly innkeeper and his wife were surely no different. Certain that their prestigious guest would want to attend, they roused Reb Shmuel from his sleep, “Wake up, Rabbi! We are leaving for Synagogue now.”
Reb Shmuel was visibly annoyed. “Why are you waking me in the middle of the night?
“Rabbi!” exclaimed the astonished innkeeper, “Why, it’s Selichot tonight!”
“Selichot?” asked Reb Shmuel, “What’s Selichot?”
The innkeeper’s wife was beside herself with amazement. “See here,” she laughed, “a learned Jew ostensibly a Torah Scholar or Rabbi, and he doesn’t know what Selichot are? Every schoolchild knows that before Rosh Hashonah we gather at midnight and recite prayers!”
“Why can’t it wait until morning?” Reb Shmuel innocently asked, “What are you praying for so urgently?”
“There is so much to pray for,” the woman explained. “We ask the Creator that our field may produce rich crops and that our garden grow fruit abundantly. We pray that the grass be good and nourishing for our cows to pasture, so that they yield plenty of milk and butter…”
“That is ridiculous!” retorted Reb Shmuel indignantly. “Since when do grown-ups wake up in the middle of the night to ask for a bit of food?!”