Today, there is more reason than ever to recite Seliḥot. Now that God has had mercy on us and has begun to redeem us by gathering in the exiles and allowing us to settle Eretz Yisrael, we should be more inspired to repent. We must beg God to continue to have mercy upon us; to gather in the exiles, and settle them in the land that He granted to our ancestors and to us; to facilitate our repentance, which will draw us nearer to Him; to help us become greater Torah scholars and sanctify ourselves through mitzva observance; and to allow us to rebuild the Temple, illuminating the entire world with the light of His faith and His Torah.
When the Jews returned from Babylonia with Ezra, they had serious spiritual problems, similar to those we are experiencing today. Through repentance, though, they merited to build the Second Temple. The Book of Ezra makes this clear. Ezra left Babylonia for Eretz Yisrael only to discover that many Jewish men, including officials and dignitaries, had married non-Jewish women. In Ezra’s own words:
When I heard this, I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate. Around me gathered all who were concerned over the words of the God of Israel because of the returning exiles’ trespass, while I sat desolate until the evening offering. At the time of the evening offering, I ended my self-affliction; still in my torn garment and robe, I got down on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said, “O my God, I am too ashamed and mortified to lift my face to You, O my God, for our iniquities are overwhelming and our guilt has grown high as heaven. From the time of our fathers to this very day, we have been deep in guilt. Because of our iniquities, we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to foreign kings, to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to humiliation, as is now the case. But now, for a short while, there has been a reprieve from the Lord our God, Who has granted us a surviving remnant and given us a stake in His holy place; our God has restored the luster to our eyes and furnished us with a little sustenance in our bondage. For bondsmen we are, though even in our bondage God has not forsaken us, but has disposed the kings of Persia favorably toward us, to furnish us with sustenance and to raise again the House of our God, repairing its ruins and giving us a hold in Judah and Jerusalem. Now, what can we say in the face of this, O our God, for we have forsaken Your commandments…. After all that has happened to us because of our evil deeds and our deep guilt – though You, our God, have been forbearing, [punishing us] less than our iniquity [deserves] in that You have granted us such a remnant as this – shall we once again violate Your commandments by intermarrying with these people who follow such abhorrent practices? Will You not rage against us till we are destroyed without remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, You are benevolent, for we have survived as a remnant, as is now the case. We stand before You in all our guilt, for we cannot face You because of this.” (Ezra 9:3-15)
Ezra’s anguish, fasting, and prayers awakened the nation to repentance, as we read, “While Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the House of God, a very great crowd of Israelites gathered about him, men, women, and children; the people were weeping bitterly.” They accepted God’s covenant, and the men agreed not to remain with the women and children who were unwilling to convert. “So Ezra at once put the officers of the priests and the Levites and all Israel under oath to act accordingly, and they took the oath” (ibid. 10:1-5). Nevertheless, since many Jews did not repent, and many did not come to Eretz Yisrael but remained in Babylon, the presence of the Shekhina was not as strong in the time of the Second Temple as in the First, and ultimately the Second Temple, too, was destroyed on account of our sins.
Certain passages in Seliḥot are appropriate for a period of exile, which makes it difficult for some people to identify with their content nowadays. Some are even worried that there is an element of falsehood in reciting such Seliḥot. However, if we see the Jewish people as a nation that transcends history, with each and every one of us linked to all Jews in all times and all places, we can recite even these exilic selections and identify deeply with them. For we identify with our ancestors who lived in exile and suffered such horrible tribulations and degradations that they almost lost hope. We identify with the Jews who experienced anti-religious persecution by Muslims and Christians, and who were tortured and martyred during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Chmielnicki Massacres. Most recently and most devastating of all, we identify with the victims of the terrible Holocaust which took place less than eighty years ago. How can we be so complacent as to say that the supplications of the Seliḥot are no longer appropriate, when there are still survivors among us who endured the ghettos and the concentration camps, and the world is still filled with monsters who openly proclaim that they hope to continue the work of the Nazis? In light of all this, we can still recite the Seliḥot and identify deeply with them.