This Motzai Shabbat, Ashkenazim will begin reciting Selichot, prayers beseeching Hashem for forgiveness, daily through Yom Kippur. As the literal translation of Selichot, forgivenesses, suggests, the purpose of reciting these prayers is to ask Hashem to forgive our sins. By reciting Selichot before and during the Days of Repentance, we take the early initiative to ask Hashem for forgiveness before Yom Kippur, the day on which Hashem will hopefully forgive all that we have done wrong.
It is important to understand the meaning of the Selichot and why we say them, for if we only say words without knowing why, our prayers will sound hollow and distant to Hashem. Therefore, I would like to briefly discuss the ideas conveyed by the Selichot that we will recite on Motzai Shabbat. The first Selicha prayer begins, “How can we open our mouth before You,” and tells why we are not capable of adequately asking Hashem to forgive us. The Selicha ends by begging Hashem, in His eternal mercy, “May we be redeemed forever,” hoping that He will listen to our meager prayers and act upon them.
The second Selicha tells of how evil and unworthy man is; that he does not deserve to be forgiven, “The good man [in today’s world] is compared to a thorn bush.” We do not believe that we can achieve our goal of complete forgiveness, yet we should nevertheless try anyway. As we finish the Selicha, we ask Hashem to, “Look down and answer us and lighten our eyes.” If only Hashem could show us that our prayers are meaningful and can accomplish their intended goal, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel of sin, which leads to the purity of forgiveness.
The third Selicha of the day describes the difficult circumstances that surround us and how only Hashem can save us: “We have been given to our captors because of our sins.” Our only hope is that Hashem, who is “True and Righteous,” will be able to strengthen our will to do better and to “draw back His anger and console us.”
The final Selicha of the night begins with the positive note of our desire to be forgiven, “When the day of rest leaves, we come to You right away.” This enthusiasm will hopefully tell Hashem that we truly deserve forgiveness for our actions and hope that He will “listen to the song and the prayer.” If He, the Creator of every creature, does this, we can truly be forgiven.
If we make the effort to understand the meanings of all the Selichot that we say, we can truly show Hashem that we are serious about our desire to be forgiven, and if the Almighty is merciful towards us, we can be purified and emerge with a clean slate after Yom Kippur.