Practicing for the Yamim Noraim
Scientists have analyzed the benefits of effective practice for anyone from musicians to athletes who hope to improve themselves. Similarly, the experience of selichot is an opportunity to prepare for the intense tefillot of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Selichot are filled with requests for mercy and forgiveness and by reciting them over and over again before Rosh Hashana, the words begin to be internalized. Selichot are said by Sephardim for 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul and by Ashkenazim from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (Shulchan Aruch and Rema Orach Chayim 581:1). What is the origin and purpose of selichot?
The Tur brings a midrash from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer which teaches that Rosh Chodesh Elul is the date on which Moshe went up to Har Sinai to receive the second set of luchot while the shofar was blown amidst the nation encamped below. For this reason, says the Tur, the shofar is blown at the end of Shacharit each morning in shul from Rosh Chodesh Elul for everyone and the Sephardi minhag is to begin selichot from then as well.
This midrash has a thematic connection to selichot: the second luchot are given after Moshe broke the first set as a result of the Jewish people worshipping the golden calf. This was the ultimate rejection of Hashem and Torah, yet, even this is forgiven, just as we hope Hashem will forgive us during this same season. The pinnacle of selichot is taken from Moshe’s tefilla for forgiveness after the egel hazahav, the 13 Midot of Hashem. By modeling Moshe’s heartfelt beseeching for forgiveness, we have an opportunity to explore our own mistakes and prepare ourselves to forgive and be forgiven. The timing of selichot is also meaningful. Whether saying selichot at night or early in the morning, each new day symbolizes the potential for personal and national improvement and teshuva, moving from the darkness of night to the light of day.
 If there are fewer than 4 days between Saturday night and Rosh Hashana, selichot begin on the Saturday night of the previous week.