When we think of Selichot (asking forgiveness), we typically think of Orthodox people confessing that they neglected to say their meal blessings or that they sinned with “immoral” thoughts. There is also the part of Selichot that talks about human relations, where we are required to apologize to people we mistakenly offended in the previous year.
When I was introduced to the wisdom of Kabbalah, I learned that in just about everything, there is the customary way and there is the Kabbalah way, and that the two barely ever overlap. There is reason and merit to both ways, though the two are worlds apart. The Selichot are no exception.
Kabbalah regards reality as a system, and the individual as the only part of it that has free choice. The better we grasp the workings of the system, the better we can harmonize ourselves with it to benefit ourselves and the entire system.
As we examine our congruence with the system of reality, we learn where we have faulted and should have done things differently. Our desire to do things better—in greater harmony with reality—is called Selicha (asking forgiveness). There is no almighty force keeping score. There is only us and how we interact with our reality.
Where Is God?
In the early 1930s, Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag, known as Baal Hasulam (Author of the Ladder) for his Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Book of Zohar, published a series of essays where he stressed the importance of unity for the people of Israel and for the world at large. In “The Peace,” he explains that when we speak of Nature and when we speak of God we are actually speaking about the same absolute law that governs reality. In his words: “We can call the laws of God ‘nature’s Mitzvot (commandments),’ or vice-versa, for they are one and the same.”
In 1940, a few years after the publication of the series I just mentioned, Baal HaSulam published a paper titled, The Nation, where he outlined the subtleties of his socialistic worldview. To explain how we are all interdependent, he used the formation of the Earth to depict how our lives consist of two opposite forces whose interaction creates and sustains life.
Baal Hasulam described evolution as a struggle “between the two forces in Earth, the positive and the negative.” The negative force separates and the positive force connects. “All organic bodies develop by the same order,” he continues. “From the moment they are planted to the end of their ripening, they undergo several hundred periods of situations due to the two forces, the positive and the negative, and their war against each other, as described regarding the Earth.”
In the end, however, the connecting force always wins. Evolution advances from the simple to the complex. The first atoms after the Big Bang were the simplest atoms—hydrogen and helium—which gradually evolved into more complicated ones. Likewise, life began with unicellular creatures that evolved into multicellular beings.
In other words, every successful evolutionary process requires successful interconnection and interdependence. The better the interaction among the elements of the system, the more complicated the creature, and the higher the place of that being in the hierarchy of evolution.
The Big Bang and the Primordial Sin
Although evolution requires connection, existence actually began with a huge explosion. The Big Bang created a force of separation that sent the universe on an everlasting journey of divergence. Today we call that blast “The Big Bang.”
As described above, all the processes that take place on one level also take place on all other levels. Because of it, to kabbalists, the metaphor of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge is very easy to comprehend. Here was a man whose name was Adam. Up to a certain point in his life he felt connected to everything around him. To him, life was existence in unity, a real heaven on Earth. Yet, at some point he succumbed to his own egoism and lost the feeling of the oneness of creation. This was the “sin” that separated him from paradise.
Yet, just as the Big Bang allowed for the onset of evolution, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge allowed for the beginning of man’s search into the forces that create reality. Adam’s book, Angel Raziel, allegorically describes these forces and marks the beginning of what we now call “the wisdom of Kabbalah.”
Our planet evolved through ice ages and great thaws. Humanity, too, evolved through the rise and fall of nations and empires according to the ebb and flow of the forces of separation and connection. All this time, the “wisdom of the hidden forces” was known only to the few who were fascinated with the universe that surrounded them and wondered how it began and what it meant.
The Birth of a Unique Nation
The change began with Abraham. Midrash Rabah, Maimonides, and other sources depict an inquisitive man pondering and contemplating reality until “he knew that there is one God [which we already said is Nature], and that He has created everything” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah).
The reason for Abraham’s intense scrutiny was the state of the Babylonian society, of which he was a part. He saw that the Babylonians “wanted to speak each other’s language but did not know each other’s tongue, so each took his sword and they fought one another, and half the world was slaughtered there” (Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer). When Abraham saw that hatred had erupted, he realized that the force of separation was taking over once again. As one who already knew that without positive connections their society would not survive, he looked for a way to unite the people.
Eventually, writes Maimonides, Nimrod, King of Babylon, drove Abraham out of Babylon. As he proceeded toward Canaan, more and more people who subscribed to his ideas joined him until “a nation that knows the Lord (Nature) was made in the world.” Thus formed the Jewish nation.
That nation was unique. It was forged through the will of people from different tribes and cultures to follow the ideal of connection and unity. This nation learned that when you “love your neighbor as yourself” until you are “as one man with one heart,” you also grasp the workings of reality and its purpose. Many centuries after Abraham, Rabbi Akiva summed up Jewish law by saying that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the whole of the Torah.
Mingle and Spread
When Abraham realized that knowing the forces of connection and separation is imperative for our happiness, he wanted everyone to know about it. Since not everyone could grasp it at the time, Abraham perfected his method of connection above separation and kept it among his people, the Jews.
And yet, in order for the world to know about the method, the Jews had to disperse among the nations and convey their method. The only problem is that the Jews were dispersed among the nations not because they wanted to spread their wisdom of connection, but because they themselves had succumbed to the force of separation and thus were exiled from their land.
The World Is Babylon
Now that Nature itself has turned our world into a global village, we must reactivate the method of connection and share it with everyone. If we avoid it, humanity will blow itself to pieces, but not before it “punishes” us for its miseries.
It is our duty to overcome our mutual dislike and strive to connect nonetheless. As we exert, we will say our Selichot for our hatred, meaning discover the true extent of our unfounded hatred, and the force of connection will mend the tears between us. In this process we will show the world a way toward unity despite mutual loathing. As King Solomon put it, “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Proverbs 10:12).
Just as Abraham rushed to share his discovery immediately after finding it, we must rediscover the force of connection in order to share it with humanity. It is our duty to bring light to the nations, and there is no other light but the light of unity—the ability to connect and base our relationships on love rather than hate.
The Selichot, the recognition of our distance from unity, is therefore a vital step in our move toward connection and toward understanding the workings of reality and the meaning of life.