I loved my father and as a kid I used to pray, every night as I settled down to sleep, that God should protect him. While I was about it I also put in prayers for the rest of the family, my mother, brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends and cats and dogs.
But it was admiration of his ability to pray that brought me to serious study of Rosh Hashanah and the recitation of prayers of Slichot (prayers of forgiveness).
I especially admired my father on Rosh Hashanah because these prayers are a very important part of Rosh Hashanah, indeed an important part of Judaism, but they are difficult to read and amazingly he could read them. We begin reading these prayers, at midnight, one month before Rosh Hashanah.
My dad used to get up in the middle of the night, on the first night of Slichot and I used to accompany him and my mother to the great synagogues 20 miles away in the great city of Johannesburg to hear great cantors, specially brought out from Israel and America. Synagogues competed with one another in attracting the most worshippers. Each year we went to a different synagogue, wherever the best cantor was performing. It was absurd to worship at this unearthly hour, but it was a stunningly solemn and beautiful experience.
There are many hundreds of these complicated prayers of forgiveness, which one can find in special books. Practically each night of Slichot has its own book of Slichot and each the words aren’t understandable even if one knows the translation. Each of these Slichot requires several volumes of explanation.
But in these days of Google and the internet it’s easy. So here’s a very brief example of the first 4 words of the first night of Slichot.
אין מי יקרא בצדק There is nobody righteous enough to call (on God).
Or: הִנְנִי הֶעָנִי מִמַּעַשׂ Here I am, a person poor in good deeds (the absurdity of such a defective person calling on God, who is the essence of goodness).
The words mean that we approach God as underserving wretches and not as people who deserve anything from Him. God doesn’t owe us anything. We don’t expect anything from Him, because we are underserving creatures. We aren’t here to take, but to give, yet God in His mercy gives us our sustenance and our life.
Mankind began saying prayers of forgiveness (Slichot) at the dawn of history; the moment he felt guilty for the bad things that happened to him, such as the banishment from the Garden of Eden and the end to immortality and the destruction of the temple.
It’s as if by reading these prayers properly we can earn God’s forgiveness and so avoid further calamities and even cause the repair of past calamities, for example it might cause the temple to be rebuilt or it might even cause the return to the Garden of Eden and immortality.
The rebuilding of the temple is critical for Jerusalem. Because the only reason why Jerusalem was holy was that God’s holy temple stood here, which means, therefore that if there isn’t a temple then Jerusalem isn’t holy.
The important thing to remember is that holiness is not a permanent feature of a person or of an object. Such permanent holiness resides only with God. Holiness can become a feature of a man, temporarily or a a nation or even a place if that person or nation is obedient to God’s laws.
If this obedience takes place in Jerusalem, then Jerusalem can become a holy place, but only for as long as the people living there are obedient to Him.
The rebuilding of the temple and the return to the Garden of Eden would be real signs that the people reciting the Slichot prayers are sincerely determined to be obedient to God, and God has accepted the Slichot and has forgiven the Jewish People.
In expectation that God will accept our Slichot prayers and that He will make at least one of these events a reality, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, an organization called the Temple Institute has been established.
Here one can take a guided tour of a model of the temple, its utensils, the garments of the priests, the altar and so on.
I advise every person, especially Jews to visit this wonderful institution, to see with his own eyes what things used to be like when the temple stood in Jerusalem and how the worship in the temple used to pervade the daily life of people living here.
The temple can only be built when people follow the holy way of God, it cannot come about through force. This we learn quite definitely in two important passages in the Bible, II Samuel 7:1-17 and IChr2:7-9. Here is the quote from IChronicles:
“David said to Solomon: "My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign.” IChr2:7-9
So when the Jew prays Slichot today he should remember that once the temple stood here and made Jerusalem holy and that it was destroyed and the city lost its holiness because he was disobedient to the commandments of God, but through sincere prayer and promoting peace he can make Jerusalem holy again.
I wish you a Happy New Year when you will be a part of making Jerusalem, once again the holy city.
The images are taken from the Temple Institute Website. Go there for more information.