The Mysterious Power of Selihot


Rabbi Joshua Maroof



The Source of Selihot

The chanting of Selihot, or prayers for forgiveness, is an essential feature of the High Holiday experience. In Sephardic communities, Selihot are said beginning from the second day of the Hebrew Month of Elul. Because we are already two weeks into the Selihot season - and, for Ashkenazim, the season is only a week away - I thought it would be appropriate for us to take the time to reflect upon the remarkable place that Selihot have in our tradition. The whole concept of Selihot is derived from an important narrative in the Torah.

The centerpiece of the Selihot prayers is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which are included at strategic points in the service. The basis for incorporating the Attributes into our supplications is a passage in the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 17B:


“And He passed before him and called out ‘Hashem, Hashem...’ Rabbi Yohanan said: If not for the written text, we would not be able to say this - So to speak, Hashem wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a cantor and showed Moshe the order of the prayers. He said ‘anytime that the Jews sin, if they recite this order before Me, I will forgive them’...Rav Yehudah said: There is a covenant sealed regarding the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, such that one who recites them is never turned away empty-handed.”


This passage presents us with an obvious difficulty. How can the mere repetition of words guarantee forgiveness for the Jewish people? Isn’t repentance a necessary precondition for atonement? At the same time, the Rabbis emphasize that they saw the institution of Selihot as securely rooted in the Biblical text. This suggests that we will be able to understand the purpose of these prayers if we explore the context in the Book of Exodus from which they are derived.

Covenantal Chaos

The narrative the Sages are citing follows immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf in Parashat Ki Tissa. Moshe is busy receiving commandments from God atop Mount Sinai, when he is apprised of an emergent crisis - the Jews are worshipping an idol down below! Hashem addresses Moshe with these words:


“Go down, for your people whom you took out of Egypt has become corrupt...”

Hashem dissociates Himself from the Israelites at this juncture, identifying them as “your (i.e., Moshe’s)” people and attributing the Exodus itself to Moshe. Hashem suggests that the Jews be annihilated, and that Moshe become the patriarch of a great nation to replace them. However, Moshe protests:


“And Moshe pleaded with Hashem his God, and said, ‘Why, Hashem, will Your anger flare up against Your people whom You have taken out of Egypt, with great strength and an outstretched arm...Return from Your wrath, and change Your mind about doing evil to Your people...”


Moshe is emphatic about the notion that the Jews, although they have sinned, remain the people of God whom He brought out of Egypt for a Divine purpose. He argues that completely wiping them out will have serious implications for the way Hashem is perceived in the world. Hashem relents and opts not to punish the Children of Israel quite as severely as He had first proposed.

Despite his advocacy on behalf of his people, when Moshe descends to find the Israelites dancing about a molten idol, he lifts up the Tablets of Testimony and smashes them. The Tablets had the Ten Commandments engraved upon them and were designed as an eternal reminder of the Revelation that the Jews experienced at Sinai. The act of destroying them was meant to demonstrate that the Covenant of Sinai had been irreparably broken.

Hashem subsequently informs Moshe that, although He will not destroy the Jews, His relationship with them will never again be the same:


“And now, take this people to the land...Behold, my angel will go before them. For I shall not go up with you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I annihilate you on the way.”

Moshe’s Intervention

The original plan had been for the Israelites to enter their land accompanied by miraculous Divine intervention comparable to what they had witnessed in Egypt. Now, Hashem tells Moshe that the assistance He will offer them will be more subtle and indirect. The Jews are deeply saddened by this development, and Moshe intercedes on their behalf. What ensues is one of the most cryptic dialogues in the entire Torah:


And Moshe said to Hashem, “Behold You said to me ‘raise up this people’, but You did not tell me whom You would send with me; yet, You said ‘I have known you by name’, and that I found favor in Your eyes. And now, make known to me Your ways, and let me know You, so that I shall find favor in Your eyes - and behold, this nation is Your people.”

And He said, “My presence will go forth and provide you rest.”

And Moshe said to Him, “If Your presence does not go along, do not bring us forth from here. How then will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes - I and Your people - unless You accompany us, and I and Your people will be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth.”

Hashem said to Moshe, “Even this thing of which you spoke I shall do, for you have found favor in My eyes, and I have known you by name.”


There are two crucial elements of this dialogue that require further analysis:

Moshe’s Purpose: Personal, National or Both?

It would seem that Moshe’s main objective in his prayer is to secure a higher level of Providential intervention for the Jewish people. He emphasizes the importance of Hashem “accompanying” the Jews along their journey and throughout the conquest of the Land of Israel. The nations of the world, and the Jews themselves, will lose out on an opportunity to recognize God’s involvement in human history if the promises to the Patriarchs are fulfilled in a less-than-sensational manner.

At the same time, Moshe includes special pleading on his own behalf, referring to his own merits (“I have found favor in Your eyes”) and to his own desire for further insight into the ways of God (“...let me know Your ways, and let me know You, that I may find favor...”) Indeed, Moshe seems to combine the personal and national requests in an almost awkward manner, appending the words “and behold, this nation is Your people” to his personal prayer for knowledge. Why does Moshe choose to voice his own curiosity in a prayer he is making on behalf of the Jewish people?



Whose People Are We?

It is quite clear that, in his petition, Moshe tries to underscore the status of the Jews as “Hashem’s people”, a phrase conspicuously absent from the Divine responses. Hashem addresses Moshe alone, to the exclusion of the Israelites, whereas Moshe insists on including them in the discussion. Sensing this dissonance, Moshe then shifts to the phraseology of “I and Your people”, drawing attention to the nation of Israel together with himself. What exactly is the significance of these nuances? How can they deepen our understanding of the exchange between Moshe and God?

A Reenactment of The Revelation

Immediately after the brief dialogue, Moshe receives new instructions:


“And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will inscribe on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you shattered. And be prepared in the morning, and you shall ascend in the morning upon Mount Sinai, and you will stand there with Me on top of the mountain. No man shall go up with you, nor shall any man appear on the entire mountain; neither shall flock or cattle graze opposite the mountain...”


Apparently, Moshe’s prayer has been answered. Hashem now directs him as to the way in which the covenant, torn asunder by the worship of the Golden Calf, will be reestablished. The solution is for a new revelation to take place at Sinai; however, this time God’s communication will be to Moshe alone.

Indeed, the parallels between the description of Moshe’s prophetic vision and that of the original event at Sinai are striking. Just as the Jewish people were commanded to “prepare themselves” to stand at the foot of Sinai and receive revelation, and just as they were commanded that neither man nor beast should ascend the mountain, so is Moshe instructed here. Furthermore, just as the first revelation was memorialized in the Two Tablets that were smashed, so too will this revelation be memorialized in the new Tablets that will be engraved by Hashem.

At the same time, though, this will be a private affair between Moshe and Hashem. Thunder and lightening will be absent, and the Ten Commandments will not be reiterated. This time around, it will be Moshe, and not Hashem, who will provide the Tablets for the inscription. Of course, the similarities and the contrasts between Moshe’s encounter with God and the revelation experienced by the Nation of Israel must be accounted for. Why did Hashem see fit to put Moshe through this unusual ordeal? If the events at Sinai must be reenacted for the covenant to be renewed, why is the reenactment only a partial one?

In the next passage, the Torah tells us:


“And Moshe carved two tablets like the first ones, and Moshe rose early in the morning and ascended Mount Sinai, as Hashem had commanded him. And he took the two tablets of stone with him. And Hashem descended in a cloud and stood with him there, and Hashem called out in the Name. And Hashem passed before him, and called out “Hashem, Hashem, God, Merciful and Gracious, Patient and Abundant in Kindness and Truth; Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, bearing iniquity, rebellion and unintentional sin, and cleansing - but He does not cleanse completely - visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

And Moshe hastened to lower himself to the ground and bow. And he said, “If now I have found favor in Your eyes, O’ Lord, then may the Lord go among us - for it is a stiff necked people, and forgive our iniquity and unintentional sin, and make us Your heritage.”

And He [Hashem] said, “Behold, I seal a covenant: Before your entire people I shall do wonders, that have never been created on earth or among the nations, and the entire people among whom you dwell will see the deeds of Hashem - which are awesome - that I will do with you.”


Two aspects of this event are especially worthy of note. The first is the connection being made between Moshe’s prophetic insight and the Jews’ atonement. To begin with, Moshe is told to ascend the mountain with new tablets in hand - a clear indication that the prophetic experience he is about to have will somehow affect reconciliation between Hashem and the Jewish people. Indeed, immediately upon grasping the knowledge that Hashem has presented to him, Moshe requests forgiveness for the Nation, and, at least on the surface, it seems to be granted. The link between Moshe’s personal intellectual growth and the status of the nation was first mentioned in Moshe’s initial prayer, and resurfaces here. What is the precise nature of their relationship? How does one affect the other?

Second, Moshe here returns to his emphasis on the Jews’ covenantal bond to God, referring to them as “Hashem’s people”. Here, though, rather than ignore this phraseology, Hashem meets Moshe halfway, referring to the Children of Israel as “The people among whom you dwell”. In some sense, the Jewish nation has regained its coveted position in God’s eyes, but it is not entirely clear how this has been accomplished.

The Parasha proceeds to rehash, almost word for word, the commandments recorded already in Parashat Mishpatim. These commandments were relayed to the Jews immediately after the Revelation at Sinai. The implication is clear - through Moshe’s “reliving” of the Sinai experience, the covenant has been restored, and these mitzvot “reintroduced” to affirm it. Can we explain the exact mechanism by which the covenant has been resurrected, and what significance the details of the process have for us?



Vicarious Providence Saves the Day

In order to answer the aforementioned questions, we must put the events of Parashat Ki Tissa into a broader theological context. From the moment that the Torah was given, the Jews’ worthiness of Divine Providence became a function of their adherence to the Divine commandments. Through their observance of the mitzvot they demonstrated a commitment to their covenant with Hashem, and He, in turn, blessed and protected them. Once the Israelites engaged in idolatry, though, they effectively terminated their special relationship with God. In an instant, they ceased to be the people of Hashem and became the people of Moshe, of their human leader (“Go down, for your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, has become corrupt”). Of course, Hashem would still fulfill His commitment to the Patriarchs and would bring their descendants into the land of Israel to inherit it. But this did not necessitate the continued existence of the Children of Israel. It would have been sufficient to preserve Moshe - the last remaining individual worthy of Hashem’s particular Providence who happens also to be a descendant of Avraham, Yitschak and Yaaqov himself - to ensure that the promise to the forefathers would be kept.

Recognizing the problem and wanting to his people to be spared from its consequences, Moshe pleads for their salvation (“Your people whom You took out of Egypt”). Nevertheless, Hashem makes abundantly clear that, from now on, His concern and intervention will only relate to Moshe due to the his profound knowledge and exceptional character. His relationship to the Jewish people as a collective, on the other hand, will be indirect at best (“behold, My angel will go before you, for I shall not go up with you...”).

In this context, we can better understand Moshe’s approach to his dialogue with Hashem. If he can create a circumstance in which his personal worthiness is inherently linked to the people’s merit, then Hashem’s providence will extend to them as well. Thus, he emphasizes “I and Your people”, drawing attention to the fact that he is a member of the nation of Israel, and that his identity and destiny is intrinsically wrapped up with theirs. To deal with him is to deal with them.



A Second Sinai - Restructuring the Covenant

It sounds noble, but how can Moshe actually achieve his goal of enmeshing himself with the people of Israel? The strategy he pursues is quite remarkable. Moshe realizes that the special relationship with God that he enjoys is rooted in his knowledge of God (“Let me know You, so that I shall find favor in Your eyes”). Thus, in order to accomplish his objective of reuniting the Jews with God, he must attain an insight into Hashem’s wisdom that is so revolutionary and profound that it will become the unique intellectual legacy of the Jewish nation. Through transferring his knowledge to the Children of Israel, he could presumably transfer his merit to them as well. Their acquisition of the content of Moshe’s epiphany will give them the boost that they need to regain Hashem’s favor.

The original covenant forged at Sinai was based on the observance of God’s commandments and was violated egregiously. But the covenant between Moshe and Hashem is a covenant of definite individual knowledge rather than precarious national commitment. The radically new understanding that Moshe received at Sinai became the intellectual inheritance of his people and formed the basis on which the covenant could be reset. Although not every Jew can grasp the full implications of what Moshe learned, the prophecy is vouchsafed to us as the people of God, to study and attempt to comprehend it to the extent of our ability. We may not, through our own merit, have the right to be called “Hashem’s people”, but we will always be the nation “among whom Moshe dwells.”

The truth is that, even today, our behavior often falls short of the expectations represented by the first covenant at Sinai. But the second covenant at Sinai, mediated by Moshe who carved the tablets with his own two hands, is rooted not in our behavior alone, but in our function as the vehicle of Torat Moshe. It provides something we can fall back on, even when we have strayed far from the mitzvot and are only beginning our process of return to Hashem.

Incidentally, we can see from here that Hashem does not operate in an arbitrary manner in His dealings with mankind. Were Moshe not to have found a valid pretext for the re-extension of God’s Providence to us, it would not have happened. Hashem doesn’t play favorites; He interacts with human beings according to their merit. To expect a special relationship with Hashem just because one is Jewish is a reflection of profound arrogance. This is why, in the course of the dialogue with Moshe, Hashem states, “I will show grace to whomever I will show grace, and I will show mercy to whomever I show mercy.” In other words, if one does not qualify for grace or mercy, there is no room to maneuver.

This explains another perplexing statement of our Sages. They tell us that Moshe, when he said “And we will be distinct - I and Your people - from all the peoples on the face of the earth”, was in fact asking Hashem to restrict the gift of prophecy to the Jewish people. The philosopher Spinoza ridiculed this Midrashic statement, averring that a modest and truly perfected man like Moshe would never have made such a petty and selfish request.

However, understood in its proper context, this petition is perfectly sensible. Moshe’s objective was to establish the Jewish people as humanity’s conduit to knowledge of Hashem, by conveying to them the foundations of true Metaphysics and Theology that he learned. But how would this unique status be manifest to the nations of the world? What concrete form would it take? The answer is that the Jews’ exclusive possession of accurate prophecy would support their claim to authentic knowledge of God, and thus establish their credibility in the eyes of the nations. Of course, the prophets are expected to share their knowledge with the entire human race. But no prophet could arise outside of the framework of the revelation vouchsafed to Moshe. This revelation, the key to true understanding of Hashem, is our heritage as a people.



The Thirteen Attributes - Ratifying The Covenant of Knowledge

This is why the Rabbis tell us that, when the Jewish people sin, they should recite the Thirteen Attributes and are guaranteed forgiveness. Most people desire a relationship with God based upon their own merits. They nurture a fantasy that, despite the imperfection of their personalities and conduct, they deserve Hashem’s particular attention. When we begin to evaluate ourselves on the High Holidays, it becomes apparent that our addiction to material things is just too powerful, our attraction to the fleeting and temporal is too overwhelming, and our ideal picture of ourselves too unrealistic. Like our ancestors, the vast majority of our energies gravitate to some Golden Calf or another. Even the teshuva we do - necessary and precious as it is - only scratches the surface of the areas in which we must improve. Thus, we are forced to humbly recognize that we cannot offer any “justification” for our receipt of God’s continued providential care. Our continued existence as the people of Hashem is not based upon our own spiritual achievements, but is predicated on the fact that we represent the legacy of Moshe, the man of God.

The saving grace of the Nation of Israel is its identity as the people to whom Moshe bequeathed true knowledge of Hashem. Recitation of the Thirteen Attributes represents our acknowledgment of this fact; even as we repent and rededicate ourselves to serving Hashem, we freely admit that we do not “deserve” His assistance because of our own accomplishments. Some individuals may indeed merit Divine intervention by virtue of their knowledge and piety, but we cannot claim to have this merit collectively. Simply stated, our specialness as a nation is due to the fact that we are the bearers of the crowning vision of the greatest of all prophets. The Tanach promises us repeatedly that, in Messianic times, the nations of the world will ask us to guide them toward a genuine understanding of the Ways of Hashem. Our role in the world as the “carriers” of this body of knowledge will then be universally recognized.

This approach can also shed light on an enigmatic Seliha prayer found exclusively in the Sephardic tradition. This piyut, or liturgical poem, is known as “Bedil Vayaavor”, “for the sake of, or on account of ‘and He passed’“. It includes a litany of petitions - ex., for long life, spiritual enlightenment, etc. - after each of which we say “on account of ‘and He passed.” The reference of “and He passed” is to the revelation Moshe received on Mount Sinai, “And Hashem passed before him, etc.”

On the surface, asking for something on account of the revelation Moshe received seems absurd. We didn’t experience the breakthrough that he did, so why should it be considered a merit for us? The discussion presented here can explain it beautifully. The prayer is emphasizing that our own worthiness is lacking, but the fact that we possess the keys to comprehending the ways of Hashem - namely, the content of the revelation communicated to Moshe - provides us with a lasting source of distinction and merit.

I hope that this exposition serves to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the High Holiday prayers. I believe that it also demonstrates how much can be learned and clarified from a careful reading of the Torah’s text alone. When studied properly, the Written Torah reveals much more to us, than most people give credit.


Courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Maroof’s blog: