My teacher, Rav Soloveitchik taught that the selichot prayers are an outcry to God, a form of prayer that is out loud and hence a blatant public event. Outcry prayers he says, are different from more ordinary request prayers, more dramatic and more emotional.
The obvious repetition in those liturgies makes sense to the Rav because outbursts expressing needs and drama and emotion are repeated.
I disagree. Outcries ordinarily are one-time events. Only in utter desperation are they repeated. We who recite this prayer are not in utter desperation.
The repetitions of Selichot are way too numerous to make sense to me as outcries. And the label of "outcry" or "outburst" is hardly a category bearing significant cognitive meaning, deep theological content or any distinctive personality.
So no, it is not correct to read the selichot as outcries. What then are the selichot?
Selichot are quiet and personal and above all, meditations seeking compassion.
Repetition is a hallmark of meditation. And compassion is a central end goal of the High Holiday season, central in particular to the Yom Kippur liturgy.
In his wonderful book, "Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified : Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe," by Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Arnold Lustiger, Lustiger says, "On Rosh Hashanh, Hashem moves from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy (p. 35)." Call it mercy or or call it compassion, I agree that movement takes place in the prayers for these holidays.
Through this season our prayers call on us to alternate between a definite certainty of the Kingship of God and a great uncertainty of the worthiness of our actions. We vacillate, we move at times into the personality of the brave public celebrity who is sure that we are number one and our God is number one.
Then we move into the personality of the insecure meditator, who seeks through meditative introspection a confirmation of the worthiness of his meager life. In one part of our service we crown God our King. And in another we meditate and seek the king's compassion so that we may live another day.
We start out this dramatic up and down High Holiday season as meditators seeking the compassion of God in the repetitions of the selichot prayers. Next we will go on to proclaim the Kingship of God on Rosh Hashanah. Then on Yom Kippur we will return and focus on our complicated quest for compassion with many quiet and personal selichot meditations -- persistently seeking compassion.