I write these words on the 13th commemoration of the terror attacks of September 11. We remember the many innocents who died on this date, and the many heroic first responders who charged into the heart of the flames in the hopes of saving fellow human beings.
What does it mean for a person to be a “first responder?” In this season of introspection, in the final weeks of 5774, I’m giving a great deal of thought to the idea that Judaism demands that we all be first responders, if not quicker to the scene. The rhythm of our ritual at this time of year explains what that means.
After all, when it comes to atonement, the Torah gives us a blueprint that merely takes up one day of our time: Yom Kippur. “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD” (Leviticus 16:30). “On this day” and nothing more. Of course, the sages designated an additional nine days leading up to Yom Kippur, giving us ‘Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, knowing that one can’t achieve it all in one day.
Yes, we are supposed to be in a state of heightened awareness and cognizance of our failings, and commit to work on them extra hard for these 10 days. But we can’t just show up on Rosh Hashanah without having done preparatory work, can we? So we add even more days to the season, beginning with Selihot in the middle of the night after the final Shabbat of the year. What’s that about? Why in the middle of the night? Can’t it wait a few hours, for morning minyan at least?
In looking at this question on Shabbat morning, we’ll find out what it means to be a first responder in the spiritual sense. And, I hope, we’ll set the scene for a meaningful High Holy Day season with an emphasis on Selihot.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise