This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
The month of Elul is a time set aside in the Jewish calendar for reflection about the previous year and ways to make the next year better. Part of this process involves saying prayers during the month for forgiveness (selichot is the plural of the word to ask for forgiveness, slicha, which is also used in modern Hebrew to say 'Excuse me'). The practice is to rise early to recite them in the morning, usually before daybreak or the morning Shacharit prayers are said. Jews of Sefardic and Mizrachi descent say selichot for the whole month, while those of Ashkenazic descent say it usually just the week before Rosh Hashana.
The ikar, or main point of Selichot is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that G-d told to Moses after klal Yisrael had committed the sin of the golden calf in the desert. You might recall that after Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, Moshe went up to receive the rest of the commandments (only the first two were said by G-d). When he didn't return forty days later like the people thought he would, some of the nation built the golden calf to 'serve' in G-d's stead. When he arrived shortly after he broke the two tablets of sapphire carved by G-d with the Ten Commandments. He did however, on Rosh Chodesh Elul go back up Mount Sinai to receive the entire Torah from G-d and also ask for forgiveness for the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf. While up on Mount Sinai the second time G-d told Moshe the Thirteen Attributes that the Jewish people should recite in times of distress when they want to awaken G-d's Divine mercy and forgiveness. An explanation of each of the thirteen are:
-G-d is compassionate to a person before he sins
-G-d is still compassionate after he sins
-Mighty in compassion, giving all living things what they need
-Gracious to those in distress
-Slow to anger
-Great in lovingkindness
-Great in truth
-Merciful to descendants
-Forgiving of iniquity
-Forgiving of transgressions
-Forgiving of sin
While some of these might sound similar in English, the Hebrew words have very esoteric meanings. Ultimately, all thirteen are reminder that G-d wants to forgive those who are remorseful of their misdeeds. A positive thought for the month!