“The little sister – her prayers she prepares and proclaims her praises. O God, please, heal now her ailments.
“Let the year and its curses conclude!”
That’s from Achot Ketanah – “Little Sister.” It is one of the piyyutim – liturgical poems – we often sing to an entrancing, winding Middle Eastern melody, that often begins Slichot.
Slichot – the service of penitential prayers that ushers in the High Holy Day season – is both dramatic and unusual. Traditionally, at least in the Ashkenazic world, the prayers are recited – but that’s a pale verb. Chanted? Sung? Intoned? Poured out? – first on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, and then every night until the holiday begins.
They are said at midnight; even when it’s made earlier for modern wimps, who want to be in bed far earlier, still it’s at night. And the moon, which reappears as a sliver for Rosh Hashanah, is tiny or completely hidden during that time. The night is dark.
When we get to shul, we often hear, usually for the first time, the haunting melodies that signal the start of the new year, and evoke the memories – some sweet, some bittersweet, some funny, some joyous, some pure pain – of the year gone by. Of all the years gone by. “Let the year and its curses conclude!”
It is also traditional, at least in this country, to begin the evening with a program before moving into Slichot. Sometimes it’s a lecture, or a film, or a concert, or just plain a chance to socialize over dessert. Often it involves music. But it is also a chance for creativity – and because they always are well after sunset, even people who are shomer Shabbat are free to drive to them.
This community is unusually rich in Slichot programs. Last week, we wrote about the cabaret at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes. This week, we describe programs at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, and Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. And that’s just a sampling of what is on offer – to learn more about what’s happening near you, at your own shul, or at someplace you’d always wondered about but have not yet gotten to – take a look at our calendar listing, starting on page 58.
To understate, this has been a hard year. But the authors of the piyyutim we sing at Slichot knew that. Achot Ketanah was written by R. Avraham Hazan Girundi in 13th century Spain. The little sister represents the Jewish people, and every year we sing about her pain. But then, at the end, there is hope.
“Be strong and rejoice for the plunder is ended; place hope in the Rock and keep God’s covenant. You will ascend to Zion and He will say Pave! Pave her paths.
“Let the year and its blessings begin.”