Beginning the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, and continuing through Yom Kippur, Jews around the world say "Slichot," a special set of prayers designed to awaken us to the significance of the High Holidays.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses asked God to explain His system for relating with the world. God's answer, known as the "13 Attributes of Mercy," forms the essence of the "Slichot" prayers.
Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. (Exodus 34:6-7)
For serious Jews, what counts in life is meaning and substance, not the illogical or the quick-fix, quirky "spiritual" stuff. We're not into playing games. Therefore it's very puzzling that a good part of the liturgy for the High Holiday season includes repeated requests for God to recall our ancestors' merits on our behalf, and invoking the "13 Attributes of Mercy" so that He may forgive us.
If the whole season is dedicated to growth and change, why are we looking for shortcuts? In other words, how do we celebrate growth while asking for mercy? We should spend the whole time soul searching and making resolutions for the future -- yet the main focus of our prayer seems to be on escaping responsibility for our deeds! Additionally, if God has these "13 Attributes of Mercy," why must we "remind" Him of it? Is He only merciful if we say this prayer?! What exactly are we trying to accomplish?
The classic Torah commentary "Tomar Devorah" explains that although the "13 Attributes" arouse divine mercy, the recitation of these alone is inadequate. Rather, we need to make sure that in action, our own lifestyles reflect these attributes as well.
For example, the Talmud says that if you are patient with others, then God will be patient with you. You can only demand that God employ all these attributes if you apply them in your own relationships.
IN OUR ANCESTORS' MERIT
This approach helps to answer another question from the prayer liturgy: Why do we always mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Does this imply that our prayers are more effective because of the forefathers?!
The answer, of course, is that every Jew is not just a biological descendant of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but a spiritual heir as well. You have to relate to what they stood for, both in terms of basic beliefs as well as practical behavior. Just as our ancestors were pillars of kindness, service to God, and truth, these ideals must become the pillars of your life as well. Only then can you approach the Almighty and ask Him to remember your ancestors. It's as if we say, "See who I'm trying to emulate? So consider me and my ancestors all in this together."
As an exercise, study the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It went against every principle that Abraham stood for. Now look at your challenges and the things you hold sacred, and see if you're ready to give them up -- in order to align yourself with the will of God.
There's a different approach that goes deeper. The purpose of mentioning the "13 Attributes" is to focus us on the nature of God, to realize that He is merciful. (Even though we already know this, we keep forgetting!) We have no trouble remembering what foods give us indigestion or to keep away from poison ivy. So when we have clarity on the existence of God and the truth of Torah, why do we forget?
The answer is because we've never really experienced spiritual indigestion. When you've had a bad experience with food, you're careful after that. You've experienced the full consequences of your actions, and you remember what it feels like.
With the spiritual, your conscience may bother you, but you've never experienced the full result of sin. This is both because we're not fully in touch with our souls, but more importantly because in His mercy, God does not allow us to immediately suffer for what we've done wrong. According to the "attribute of justice," a sinner should drop dead on the spot. We survive because the Almighty is merciful and gives us a chance.
This is why the "13 Attributes" speak of "God's patience." The same God Who created you with a clean slate and a world of opportunity gives you another opportunity after you've misused the first one. If you truly understand what "wrong" means, then even if you seem to be benefiting from your wrong actions, you have to tune into God's mercy and see what He's doing for you. Then, that success will not mislead you, because you'll be humbled. "I was rude to others and nevertheless I became popular -- because God is patient and loves me." Rather than using your success as a way of clouding truth, use it as a way of appreciating God's care and closeness.
STAYING ON TRACK
Which brings us back to the patriarchs and matriarchs. Our fate is not up to us. The Jewish people have a destiny that was set in motion by our ancestors, and one way or another we will fulfill it. (That destiny is "Light Unto the Nations" -- teaching the world about God and morality.) The only question is how easy or how painful the road will be.
Therefore, God's tolerance and mercy appear on a national level as well. When we ask the Almighty to "remember our ancestors," we're reminding ourselves that Jewish survival is a result of our destiny. We survive because of our ancestors and it's up to us to make sure that we merit to fulfill our proper destiny.
During the High Holidays, God accommodates our change and growth more than any other time of the year. May the Almighty give us the wisdom to make use of these opportunities to really grow and change.