The Gemara refers to Selichot as seder tefilla, namely an order of prayer which parallels Shemone Esrei. Shemone Esrai consists of praise, requests, and thanks. In a similar vein, Selichot begin with praise, move on to requests and the thirteen attributes of mercy, and end with thanking Hashem for his beneficence.
Judaism views man as an incongruous being. On the one hand, he can rise to unbelievable heights, greater than angels. On the other hand, he is like dust and ashes in his helplessness and worthlessness and total dependence on Hashem. This paradox seems to be at the heart of what Selichot is about. We approach Hashem in an intimate way. We address Him in the second person. But then we move on to bakasha, as we cry and plead for forgiveness.
The Rambam says that the way of repentance is to shed tears and implore Hashem for forgiveness. We recite Selichot after midnight, a time of eit ratzon (favor). We invoke Hashem’s mercy by reciting the thirteen attributes. The halacha is that someone praying alone doesn’t say the thirteen attributes. Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is because it is tantamount to a davar shebi’kedusha (a holy prayer), which requires a minyan (quorum of ten men). A davar shebi’kedusha is defined by the poskim as a dialogue between the prayer leader and the congregationand with it we sanctify Hashem‘s name in public. The Rambam writes that although Hashem always accepts our teshuva, it is most accepted in the days of grace, yemei ratzon, when Hashem comes down to be with us. This is why we recite Selichot during this period.
Selichot are comprised of three elements, which parallel the three elements of the soul: nefesh, ruach, and neshama. The Zohar says nefesh is a dark light rooted in the physical being, the source of emotion. It produces heat and relates to the lowest level of a person through the physical body. The next level, ruach, is a white light. It is the source of intellect, relates to our spiritual aspect, and not only provides heat, but also illumination. Finally there is the neshama which is a hidden incomprehensible light. Teshuva is possible because of this mysterious light that can never be corrupted. The neshama is the impetus for return.
The Rambam explains that nefesh is the source of feelings and physical drives. Its goal is pleasure and self-gratification. By nature it is limited. The ruach, the intellectual side, seeks higher truth. We need both the nefesh and ruach to serve Hashem. Emuna is defined in two ways, l’haamin, to believe, and l’hodea, to know. Belief stems from nefesh, the source of emotion, but there’s also an obligation to understand and connect to Hashem intellectually with the ruach.
Jews throughout the millennium have given up their lives to sanctify Hashem’s name. They were not necessarily great talmidei chachamim, but simple Jews who had pure emuna stemming from nefesh. Giving charity, doing acts of kindness, and deveikut b’Hashem, all flow from nefesh. Yet ruach is also a critical factor in serving Hashem. Intellect plays a pivotal role in studying and understanding Torah in a profound way. The greater the understanding, the greater the deveikut (attachment) to Hashem.
The Aseret Hadibrot are repeated twice in the Torah. In Parshat Yitro they address the ruach. In Parshat Va’etchanan they focus on the nefesh, the fire of Torah. Both are necessary. Selichot addresses the nefesh state of teshuva with the goal of reaching the ruach and the neshama.
On Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to afflict the nefesh. “V’initem es nafshoseichem. You shall afflict your nefesh.” In this way, a person is motivated to experience the torment of his sins, which will in turn arouse him to pray and repent. In Selichot, we ask Hashem for mercy to bring us back to teshuva. We ask Him to help us rid ourselves of the yetzer hara so that our inner core will sparkle again. We focus on nefesh, then we move on to ruach, which in turn helps us bring our neshama to the fore. This is accomplished through teshuva, tefila, and tzedaka (repentance prayerand charity).
May the power of Selichot and the thirteen attributes, accompanied with the promise that no prayer ever goes unanswered, help us come back to Hashem.