In the dark hours before dawn, a solitary man walks through a foggy street. Carrying a lantern, he chants a simple melody with even more simple words, “selihot, senhores, selihot.”
Such was the scene in the Jewish neighborhood of Curaçao throughout the 18th century at this time of year. In fact, it was the scene in many Sephardic neighborhoods in which the synagogue caretaker would call the people to come to the house of prayer for selihot or “penitential prayers” in preparation for the coming Jewish New Year/Rosh HaShanah, and the Day of Atonment/Yom Kippur, ten days later. Now, this caretaker has been replaced by cell phone chimes and alarm clocks but the selihot before dawn remain the same.
A central part of the selihot liturgy is the lively recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy which are described in the 34th chapter of Exodus. These attributes include clemency, forgiveness, steadfastness, kindness, graciousness, patience and more. The Talmud (Rosh HaShana 17b) relates that at the moment when these attributes were revealed, an angel appeared in the form of a person wearing a tallit, and taught Moses how to invoke these attributes in prayer saying “any time the people of Israel sin before God, they shall perform this order (i.e. the 13 attributes of mercy) and they will not return empty.” In other words, through performing the order of these attributes, the people’s repentance would be accepted.
Rabbi Moshe Alshikh (16th C. Turkey and Israel) warns that one should not be tempted to think that reciting these attributes is some magic formula. The Talmud does not say that the people’s repentance will be accepted by “reciting” these attributes but by “performing” them. In other words, the people’s repentance is accepted when, aided by prayer, they learn to embody God’s characteristics of profound mercy and compassion, and live them in the world. This point serves as a template for all of religious life. Judaism is not a religion of magic incantations (though those trends have shown up in our history from time to time) and our ritual life is one that must enhance our ethical and spiritual lives if it is to be genuine. Whatever your preparation for the High Holy days looks like, we can all consider how to utilize it to foster Godlike qualities found in all of us and bring them into greater reality in our everyday lives. In doing so we will surely usher in a sweet new year.