According to Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Chazal saw prayer as a an audience between the King and a prominent individual thus requiring us to stand straight, dress in good clothes and address Hashem directly. Hashem has given us this special privilege to approach him three times a day, only because we have a precedent from the Avos who approached Him this way.
In Selichos, we approach Hashem, not from the greatness of a man before a King, but from the opposite assumption, based on man’s weakness, loneliness and helplessness. Selichos are filled with one idea, how can lowly man possibly approach G-d? Our right to approach Hashem in Selichos is based on the Gemora in Rosh Hashanah (17b) where it is recorded that Hashem told Moshe that “Every time that Israel sins, let them perform this service (13 Attributes of Mercy) and I will pardon them.”
These two approaches to prayer perhaps provide another answer to the question of why we don’t say viduy (confession), which is an essential component of Teshuva (along with regret and commitment to avoid transgression in the future) on Rosh Hoshana. Three of the approaches to this question are 1) on the Day of Judgement, we don’t want to mention our transgressions; 2) on this day we practice Hirhur Teshuva, which is a preparation for actual Teshuva; 3) we are actually performing the commitment to the future aspect of Teshuva. But at the end of the day, this is one of the ten days of Teshuva, when Hashem is especially accessible to grant atonement for our sins, so why don’t we take advantage with full Teshuva?
Another possible answer is that based on the two types of prayer, there are actually two types of Teshuva. The first is a general return to the ways of Hashem, the Teshuva mentioned in Parsha Nitzavim. The theme of Rosh Hoshana is that Hashem is King and He has a plan from the beginning of creation through the giving of the Torah at Sinai and culminating with the coming of Moshiach. The mitzvah of the day, the Shofar, is to tell us to pay attention to the plan, just as we were notified of the plan with the Shofar at Sinai and will be notified with the coming of Moshiach. This is our day to choose to be an integral part of the plan, to approach G-d from our potential greatness, just as we approach the King in the Shemoneh Esrai.
The second type of Teshuva is the atonement for the mistakes of the past. To achieve this atonement we need the full battery of viduy, regret and future committment. We must come to Hashem and admit that we have serious deficiencies as a result of our thoughts and actions and we are asking Hashem to help eliminate the stains we have created. This Teshuva requires the prayer of Selichos with our admission of weakness and helplessness, and the turning towards Hashem for help, as He directed us when he gave us the 13 Middos.
On Rosh Hoshana we are focused on the coming before the King, the positive commitment to Teshuva, drawing on the potential greatness of man. We sing and pray about the King, His plan and our commitment to our role. On the rest of the days of Teshuva we have to clean up our deficiencies, it’s the Teshuva of atonement, with its Viduy, regret, commitment, and Selichos.
As Baalei Teshuva we are well aware of these two types of Teshuva. We know we have many deficiencies in areas such as Torah knowledge, Torah non-compliant acts, and the many character traits we must work on. But at the same time we have all had the opportunity to explicitly sign on to the plan. When we decided to accept the yoke of Mitzvos and change significant parts of our lives, we demonstrated our striving for greatness in our service of the King.
When we held the Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton many years ago, I mentioned these two aspects of Baalei Teshuva, our many deficiencies and our growth orientation and commitment to Torah. One speaker, a Baal Teshuva, jokingly remarked that until today he didn’t realize he had so many problems, while another speaker, who is frum from birth, remarked that the reason he came to the Shabbaton and “religiously” reads Beyond BT is because he wants to be part of a group that is so committed to their own and each other’s growth.
As we approach the Yomin Noraim we need to focus on both types of Teshuva. We have to accept and understand that we have our deficiencies, our stains, our areas to improve – and here we need the Teshuva of viduy and of atonement. We also have to realize that although we may have signed up for the plan many years ago, we have to re-enlist on a yearly basis.
Rosh Hoshana is the day when we get a clear picture and the need to strive for the greatness that the picture offers. We must try to work up to the same enthusiasm we had in our original commitment. These dual messages of Teshuva have the potential to unite all Jews as we are all Baalei Teshuva when we commit to our potential greatness, while at the same time recognizing, admitting and continuing to work on our deficiencies.
May we all have a Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.