Selachti K'devarecha

Kol Nidre 5777
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Since the breakup of the phone company, and the rise in cellular telephone and cable television and internet companies, there has been a massive increase of competition between them all. While it seems that Comcast and Verizon are the two choices here on Nantucket for cable and internet, in Brooklyn, we are offered: Time Warner, DirectTV, Verizon Fios, Verizon, ATT, Dish Network, RCN, Optimum, and several others. So lately, my mail box seems to be filled with letters offering cable and internet at unbelievably low rates. It seems that the monthly charges being offered have dropped considerably over the last year and many of these offers come with the additional opportunity to upgrade one’s service, get better equipment and have the fastest speeds available (even if your present computer is incapable of ever attaining those speeds). They come so often that more often than not the offers don’t even get opened before they get thrown into the garbage. However, several times in the past I have been intrigued enough to open and consider the many offers that almost daily await us in our mail box, and spend a few minutes calculating the cost savings versus the inconvenience of switching from one company to another.

At one point, last year, when looking at one of our bills, I noticed that there was indeed an incredible disparity between what we were paying and what we were being offered, we decided that the time had come to reduce our bill and hopefully upgrade our service. And so I called the new company that I had chosen, scheduled the technician to come and rewire our house and connect to their network. Once we were up and running, I called our old provider to cancel our old service. When I finally reached a live operator after fighting through a voice mail system that has become even less user-friendly, the cheerful operator on the other end was curious as to why we were cancelling our service. I stated very clearly that we had gotten a better offer and by doing this we would be able to save ourselves considerable amount of money and we expected better service. The operator then offered that she could reduce the monthly charges for the service we had and I suggested that it was a little too late; we had already gone ahead and switched over to the new network and we were satisfied. But I was curious. I asked her if I had just picked up the phone and asked for the company to drop my monthly charge, would they have done so. She opined that in certain circumstances, they have done that, but if the customer threatens to leave, they certainly always do. I said, “You mean that a couple of months ago I could have called you up and said, ‘I’m tired of paying this amount for our internet and phone. I’d like to pay less’ you would have agreed?” And the operator said, “Well, you only needed to ask. The answer might have been ‘no’ but if you were prepared to do something about it, the answer probably would have been yes.” After I thought for a little while, I realized not only had she told me something about life in the world of technology providers, but she told me something about Jewish life as well.

Throughout these days of repentance and especially tonight on Kol Nidre and throughout this day, Yom Hakippurim, we read over and over again in our machzorim — our prayerbooks — the words selachti k’devarekah — I have pardoned in response to your plea. This is a refrain read over and over again as words of comfort — a nechemta — final words of consolation and response, words from God saying that our pleas have reached the holy heights and have been accepted. As these words echo over and over again in the pages of our prayerbooks, there is a sense of hope that builds in each and every one of us that perhaps our prayers for forgiveness have been heard, received and accepted.

Yet these words, selachti k’devarecha, have a life of their own. It is as if they are taken completely out of context from another event in time and placed in the pages of our book. In fact, we first see these words in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 14, in which Moses sends 12 men to scout the land of Canaan and so they travel for 40 days going to spy on the land and return to bring their report. And those that approached Moses say “we came to the land to which you sent us. It does indeed flow with milk and honey. This is its fruit,” they said as they lifted before Moses extraordinarily large bunches of grapes. “However,” they continued, “the people who inhabit the country are powerful. The cities are fortified and very large. Moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalakites dwell in the Negev. Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites inhabit the hill country and Canaanites dwell by the sea alongside the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:27-29). And Caleb says, “So, let’s go. We’ll deal with all of those because this is the land that God had promised us.” And ten of the spies said, “We are like grasshoppers compared to them. We can’t attack. They are stronger than we are.” And because of the statements of the 10, the entire community of Israel breaks out into loud cries, and people wept that night thinking that the land which God had promised them, the land that they had traveled for months to inherit, is beyond their grasp. Finally, Joshua speaks up and says, “Listen. God promised us this land. If God is pleased with us, God will give it to us. Don’t have fear.”

But the Children of Israel were not placated and they prepared to pelt their leaders with stones. And God calls forth to Moses and says, “How long will this people spurn Me? How long will they have no faith in Me despite all of the signs that I have performed for them in their midst.” God, in a fit of anger tells Moses that God is prepared to wipe out the entire people and start again with just Moses. But Moses responds to God and says, “If you do that, people might hear this report and believe that You were powerless and incapable of bringing Your people into the land. And moreover, You brought them out of Egypt to slay them in the desert.” Moses continues to placate God by using a statement from Exodus which Jewish tradition calls “The 13 Attributes of God.” Adonai, adonai el rachum vachnun we read in Exodus and here in Numbers we see the continuation adonai erech apayim verav chesed–Oh God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness….

Finally, Moses says, “Please. Pardon this people according to your great kindness as you have done so many times before, since we left Egypt.” And in that moment, we see the words selachti k’devarecha–I have pardoned in accordance with your request.

Here, pardon comes only because Moses points out that it is part of God’s nature to accept and God only accepts because Moses pleads — Moses does not make a mere simple request, but he is willing to do something about it. He places himself on the line in defense of his people. Moses goes beyond the simple step of making a request to be forgiven, but stands there firm on the ground saying, “God, this is who You are. This is what You are. These are Your people. Forgive them, I beg you.” The words selachti k’devarecha are more than just “I have pardoned because you have asked.” The word devar here is not just translated as “word” but as “thing” — “I have pardoned in accordance to what you have done. I have pardoned because of your action.”

These 10 days of repentance are days in which we consider the acts of the past year and look to ways to rectify those actions. We find ourselves before our God, pleading for God’s forgiveness for sins we have committed against the Holy One. We are told that we must make amends with those individuals we have hurt and only when they have forgiven us can we turn to God for forgiveness. But there are also sins that we commit against ourselves when we let ourselves down and fail to rise to our highest abilities and capabilities. This means, we must look inward before we can turn outward to God to ask for pardon. But there are sins for which only God can offer pardon and it is today that we rise and place our requests before God for the pardon that each of us must seek.

Our rabbis were keenly aware of the need to seek out pardon. In fact, twice daily in the traditional prayerbook, after the leader’s repetition of the shemona esray — those 18 (really 19) requests we make for God to bless us in all aspects of our life — there is an additional section of prayers called tachanun, meaning supplication. In fact, our rabbis have often referred to it in the Talmud as nefilat appayim, literally “falling on the face.”   It was the intentionof the rabbis to create an opportunity twice a day to ask God to forgive us for our iniquities.

It is interesting to note that in the earliest codification of our prayerbook, which is known as Seder Rav Amram, compiled by Amram Gaon in the 9th century, that the words selachti k’devarecha –– I have pardoned in accordance with your plea — were part of that twice daily ritual when recited on Mondays and Thursdays, for on those days there is a special tachanun. We learn from Kabbalistic literature that the Kabbalists believed that on Mondays and Thursdays, just as the earthly courts were open for business (as they were market days) so too, the Heavenly Court judges individuals on those days and therefore extra supplications were introduced into the tachanun. If judgement were to be made on those days, we would want to know that the judgement was in our favor; therefore, the early versions had the words, “I have Pardoned….” included. However, later versions of the tachanun, certainly by the 12th century, no longer contain the words selachti k’devarecha. One might suppose that if twice a week throughout the entire year we have heard the words that God has pardoned us in accordance with our request, then perhaps we would become inured to making the requests at all. By the 16th century, we no longer see these words except on the Yamim Noraim — the awesome days in which we now find ourselves.

Several years ago, I had a confrontation with myself in the mirror and the image that was reflected back was no longer an image that was fresh in my mind of my body. I had seen changes taking place, most of which were centered around the middle part of my body. I thought that perhaps it was time to do something about it. So after some research, I found myself purchasing a Nordic Track. After getting it home and unpacking it from its many boxes and assembling it, I gave it a coveted place in the center of our family room. For several months I would approach the Nordic Track and demand that it help me get back into shape. And in point of fact, nothing happened. I pleaded with it. I begged it. Until I realized that I would have to climb on before it could do anything for me. I eventually sold it. Then last year, my kids conspired and insisted we get a dog so that I would start walking. The dog and I would walk half a block and I would wait until he did his business. Walking half a block wasn’t going to do anything, so Marianne insisted that we take the dog for a walk together on a regular basis, and I can now walk 5 miles without complaining. And my doctor just noticed the positive impact because I finally got active.

So many of us come to these days of repentance believing that the mere request, and our presence here will ensure our forgiveness for sins past and prepare us to enter our new year with a clean slate. However, there is more to the process of teshuva — of true repentance — than simply asking for forgiveness. For teshuva is hard work indeed. The word in Hebrew, as many of you have heard me say, means “turning” — turning from ways that have injured others or ourselves or God in the past and turning towards ways of righteousness, of justice and peace.

There is a chasidic teaching that states that Teshuva is the essence of Judaism for the Hebrew letters of the word come from the first letter of each of the following biblical verses:

“You must be wholehearted with the Eternal your God” (Deut. 18:13)
“I have always set the Eternal before me.” (Ps.16:8)
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
“In all your ways acknowledge the Holy One.” (Prov. 3:6)
“To walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Perhaps it is the hardest work that we can do, for it is exceedingly hard to recognize when we have done wrong, but it is harder still to make the changes necessary to ensure that we will not wrong again. Selachti k’devarecha — “I have pardoned in response to your plea” really means “I have pardoned if you have done your work. I have pardoned on account of your action.”

In Talmud, Baba Metzia (59a) we read that if one submissively places the head upon the arm and offers fervent intense prayer, then the prayer offered is warmly accepted by God. Our request for pardon must come in such a way as to truly shake the vaults of heaven. To recognize that, without trying to perfect ourselves, our world can never become perfect. The act of perfecting ourselves begins with the recognition that we have sinned and we no longer want to sin. And as fervently as we pray that prayer, we must also recognize that it is God’s nature to forgive us. It is God’s nature to want us to change. And so God waits….

God waits until we pose the question, “Will you forgive me? Will you forgive us?” And again, God waits, hoping for some proof that our prayer is offered with sincerity, waiting for some thing, some act to prove and to guarantee that the pardon we seek is deserved.

from our mouths,
reading the words of our prayerbook,
echoing the words of Torah,
we hear the nachemtah,
the words of consolation we so long to hear 

Selachti K’devarecha — “I have pardoned because of your deed.”

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