At Seuda Shelishit this week I was talking to the kids about Selichot. I explained that at midnight we would go to shul to say special prayers before Rosh Hashanna - Selichot!
Yehuda - my exceptionally alert 2 yr old ... he's 3 in a month - piped up:
"Are you going to say 'Selicha' to Hashem in shul tonight?"
And suddenly I realised that I had never really thought about the word selichot. Are we saying "selicha" - sorry to God during selichot?
Now when one thinks about the content of Selichot, there is very little saying "Sorry!" What is in selichot?
1. The service begins with praise.
2. It then moves on to a series of prayers punctuated by "El Melekh." These prayers talk about how hard the Galut is OR how it is excruciatingly difficult for man - merely flesh and blood - to keep full adherence and focus to the high standards that God sets.
El Melekh records God's promise to treat us with mercy and forgiveness.
3. We then move to God's Biblical promises of forgiveness,
4. viduy - confession, either 3 times or (according to the Gr"a) once.
5. Some ancient Tachanunim - prayers beseeching God's mercy... followed by Tachanun.
So where do we say "Sorry?" In viduy?
I spoke to a friend - an expert in liturgy - who thankfully clarified things for me. In Modern Hebrew, "selicha" means sorry. But in Classical Hebrew it is more like "Tislach Li", or in other words, "forgive me." Like the phrase in our Amida: "s'lach lanu." The best English example is the phrase "pardon me." It is used just like the phrase "sorry" but in fact we are beseeching a person who we have evidently wronged AND who has the power and option of pardoning us, to forgo the insulting act, the wrongdoing, and hence to grant us a reprieve, a pardon.
Selichot is actually not about OUR regret. It is about our begging GOD to pardon us, to forgive us. We use an impressive range of methodologies in order to induce God's mercy, and to remind Him just how much we need His pardon.
A friend commented to me just this morning how he finds Selichot "totally unhelpful" in his Teshuva process, and his attempts to improve and repair during Elul. With this new understanding of Selichot, I think I understand why some people do find these prayers difficult. In our modern mindset, we certainly do not feel particularly vulnerable, even in these days approaching "Yom HaDin - Judgement day!" We may understand the need for our personal improvement in some manner, be it Bein Adam Lechaveiro (social standards) or Bein Adam Lamakon (purely religious instructions.) And yet, we know we are good people fundamentally, even if we have certain character and behavioural flaws. We are not frightened for our future nor the future of the Jewish nation. And hence the intense need to imlore God for his mercy, for His continued extension of good fortune to a beleagured Jewish nation, to pathetic human beings... alll this is alien to our mindset. Is it our moderity? Our prosperity? Our Zionism? We just aren't taht scared in general. We feel less threatened. And hence Selichot and the need to beg God for mercy and forgiveness seems less acute.
Whichever way, there is a vast difference between our "apology" to God and the alternative notion that God should be cajoled into annulling our awful (individual and collective) verdict, by appealing to his forgiving side: "Selach Lanu!"