The Selichos prayers are often recited on Saturday night after the Shabbos when this Torah portion is read.

There is a classic chassidic story about these prayers. Once the well-known chassid, R. Shmuel Munkes, was traveling to Liozna to spend the holiday of Rosh HaShanah with the Alter Rebbe. On the Shabbos before the holiday, he lodged at the inn of an elderly couple situated on the road. On Saturday night, the couple asked him if he wanted to accompany them as they rode to the town.

“Why are you going?” asked R. Shmuel.

“To recite Selichos,” the woman answered.

“What are Selichos?” inquired R. Shmuel feigning ignorance.

“Shame on you,” scolded the woman. “An old Jew and one who looks like a Rabbi and you don’t know what Selichos are. Selichos are when you ask G‑d for the cows to have milk and the grain to grow.”

“Silly old folk,” R. Shmuel replied, “staying up in the middle of the night to pray for some milk and grain.”

When the Alter Rebbe heard about this interchange, he severely reprimanded R. Shmuel.

Why did R. Shmuel make fun of his hosts’ prayers?

Because he wanted them to realize that there is more to life than milk and grain. A person should learn to look upward and focus his attention on the spiritual.

Why did the Alter Rebbe reprimand R. Shmuel?

Because our awareness of the spiritual should permeate the material. We are concerned with cows and grain. No one should try to deny that. And because we are, G‑d is. He is the source for our prosperity and well-being and He seeks that we turn to Him sincerely when requesting our needs.

Parshas Ki Savo

Thisweek’s Torah reading contains the charge: “And you shall follow His ways.” On that verse, our Sages comment: “Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called compassionate; so, too, you shall be compassionate. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called merciful; so, too, you shall be merciful. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called generous; so, too, you shall be generous.”

Maimonides develops this idea further, explaining that the reason the Torah informs about a particular Divine quality is so that we can emulate it: “For this reason, the prophets described the A-lmighty with all these different adjectives:... To make known that these are good and just paths in which a person should conduct himself to emulate Him according to his potential.” The Torah’s purpose in describing G‑d’s qualities is not to tell us Who He is, for in truth He defies definition, but instead, to teach who we should be, what are the qualities we should develop within ourselves.

A more careful look at the wording Maimonides uses indicates that he is not telling us merely to adopt the qualities for which G‑d is praised. He is telling us to emulate the manner in which G‑d manifests these qualities. To explain: Usually, a person expresses an emotion as a natural, spontaneous response. He sees something attractive and is roused to love. He sees something menacing and he recoils in fear.

This cannot be said about G‑d. He is by definition above having “natural reactions” to what happens here on earth. For if our conduct would influence G‑d like it influences our colleagues, He would not be much of a G‑d. Instead, He reacts in a certain way because He chooses to, because He considers this reaction as appropriate. His emotional attributes are expressed only when they are called for.

This teaches us two things: Firstly, that we should try to react in a similar manner, expressing the qualities that He does in like situations. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, that we should react as He does, not spontaneously and naturally, but with controlled thought. Often, we become emotionally excited. This prevents us from thinking clearly and knowing which emotional attribute to exercise at a given time. Just as G‑d exercises His attributes at will and by choice, without being subject to emotional whims; so, too, we should control our feelings, rather than respond to them.

In this vein, we can appreciate statements made by Maimonides with regard to a leader: “There will be times when he will be merciful and compassionate to certain people. [He will act] not merely out of ordinary feeling and generosity, but as is appropriate. And at times, he will seek revenge and bear a grudge against some other people, manifesting anger as is appropriate for them without feelings of anger.... His purpose should be for this activity to produce the greatest possible good for people at large.”

Leadership — and we all are leaders in given situations — involves ruling over one’s feelings, understanding a situation and acting in the way that will lead to the greatest good, not doing what we feel like doing at the moment. This is the emulation of G‑d which the above verse asks of us.

Looking to the Horizon

The ultimate expression of the refinement of our personalities will come in the era of Mashiach. Firstly, it will be an era of boundless prosperity. None of the selfishness that accompanies a scarcity mentality will be present. We will have everything we need — and more. Therefore we will not begrudge others what they have. We will be able to see a person for what he or she is, not what he can give us.

But beyond that, there will be an outpouring of Divine revelation. Not only will we not have material concerns dragging us down, spiritual awareness will lift us up. We will become aware of the G‑dliness that is present in every person and every entity. That will inspire the G‑dliness that we have within our own being to be expressed.

As such, all of our emotional qualities will be manifest in the most consummate manner, loving what and when we need to love, fearing what is truly awe-inspiring, and expressing kindness and mercy when the situation calls for it.