The Holiday Series, Rosh Hashanah (1948) Attribution: Arthur Szyk, via Wikimedia Commons
The Selihot service is a request for forgiveness and mercy from the Almighty, recited each morning during the period before and after Rosh Hashana, and particularly during the Neila service onYom Kippur. At its center is the recitation of the shelosh esrei middot, the “thirteen attributes of God’s mercy” which God Himself proclaimed to Moshe after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7): “The Lord is (1) compassionate before one sins and (2) even thereafter. He is (3) mighty in His mercy, (4) compassionate and (5) gracious, (6) slow to anger and (7) plenteous in kindness and (8) truth. (9) He remembers acts of kindness unto thousands of generations, forgiving (10) iniquity, (11) willful sin and (12) error, and (13) pardons them.”
These are the famous thirteen culminating the Seder’s “Who knows One?”The basis for this prayer service is a famous passage in Tractate Rosh Hashana (17b), which tells that God declared to Moshe, “Whenever Israel sins, ya'asu lefanai ke-seder ha-zeh - they shall perform this service before Me and I will forgive them.”The Gemara goes so far as to establish that “a covenant is made with the thirteen attributes that they never return empty-handed.”Invoking God's attributes of mercy, kindness and forgiveness is thus a “foolproof”method of achieving atonement and having our misdeeds expunged from our record, so to speak.
Many writers have addressed the question of how the mere recitation of a text could earn one complete absolution. The Torah does not recognize “magical incantations” or other quick-fix remedies to spiritual ills – that’s witchcraft and idolatry! It demands, rather, that sinners work to improve their conduct, repent, express sincere regret, and pray and beg the Almighty for forgiveness. Wherein lies the unique “power” of the recitation of the shelosh esrei middot? Rav David Silverberg (http://gush.net/archive/salt-chagim/rosh-hashana-10.htm)notes that according to many scholars, the Gemara refers not to the simple recitation of these attributes, but rather to the internalization and implementation of these qualities in our own life and routine. Man, created in God’s image and crowned with His honor, was given the imperative “to walk in His ways” (veHalakhta bi-derakhav; Deut. 28:9). Explaining this imperative, Maimonides (Mishne Torah,Hilkhot Dei’ot, 1:6) uses the expression “le-hedamot elav” - to imitate His ways –imitatio dei.
In that same context, the Gemara remarks, “Kol ha-ma'avir al midotav ma'avirin lo al kol pesha'av”– whoever deals indulgently and forgivingly with his fellow men earns similar treatment from the Almighty. If a person accustoms himself to forgiving wrongs committed against him, rather than insisting on an exacting and demanding standard in his dealings with others, then God similarly treats him with flexibility and indulgence. Thus, when the Gemara speaks of the “power” of reciting the shelosh esrei middot, it actually refers to committing ourselves to following the Almighty's example of forgiveness and generous compassion. A number of writers inferred this reading of the Gemara from the phrase “ya’asu lefanai ke-seder ha-zeh”–“they shall perform this service before Me.”The Gemara speaks not of "reciting" this service, but rather of “performing” the thirteen attributes. Possibly, this means that we earn forgiveness not through the mere recitation of these attributes, but rather through the implementation of these values in our own lives.
Rav Moshe Leib Shachor, in his Avnei Shoham (Parashat Ki-Tisa), adopts this reading of the Gemara and adds that this would explain the unusual sequence of the terms rahum and hanun(“compassionate” and “gracious”) in the verses of the thirteen attributes. These descriptions of God appear on several occasions in Tanakh, but normally with hanun preceding rahum–e.g. “hanun ve-rahum”(Jonah 4:2). In the list of the thirteen attributes, by contrast, rahumprecedes hanun–“Kel rahum ve-hanun.”Rav Shachor suggested that since the thirteen attributes are intended primarily as a blueprint for how we ought to treat one another, rather than an objective assessment of God's attributes, the attribute of rahum– compassion –precedes hanun– graciousness. We must first achieve rahamim– compassion, sensitivity and understanding – before we can act with hen– with kindness and undeserved grace. First we must overcome the instinctive desire for payback and reprisal, and engender within ourselves feelings of mercy and compassion for those who have done us wrong. In this merit, we pray the Almighty will treat us similarly with sensitivity and compassion despite our many failings.