What does it feel like to partake in an activity that is normal for you, but to do it at an unusual time? The feelings we might experience at these moments, familiarity mixed with a sense of something new, is central to the prayers of Selichot, prayers we engage with as a community on Saturday night, September 24. We gather to intensify our preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, preparations that began with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Throughout the month of Elul, we have recited Psalm 27 morning and evening, and we have sounded the shofar each weekday morning. With Selichot, however, we understand that the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are not a few weeks away, but very close at hand. Mahzor Vitry, an 11th century Ashkenazi siddur, describes for us that it is a custom to rise early in the morning on Sunday before Rosh Hashanah (this year it is a week earlier because Rosh Hashanah is so early the following week) and beg to God for mercy.
At least since the 11th century (and probably earlier), we have gathered late at night following the Shabbat immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah (or the Shabbat before that, it depends on the calendar for that particular year), and reminded ourselves of one of the major themes of the Yamim Noraim. We supplicate ourselves and beg God for mercy, because we know that as much as we might have tried this past year, we certainly fell short, more often that we might care to admit.
In addition to the theme of mercy, Selichot also introduces to us the musical motifs of the Yamim Noraim, a startling reminder of the nusach hatefila, the traditional melodies used in prayer, that carry us higher and higher, and that, year in and year out, startle us out of our slumber and tell us that the holidays have arrived. When we sing the 13 attributes that night, reminding us of God’s mercy, I know that I feel just as startled by the music as I am by the words.
I am not startled in the sense of a real surprise, since I have heard these words recited many times before. But startled in the sense of wonderment — amazed at the gift of repentance that Judaism has presented to us and grateful that God’s open arms are always available to me and to all who seek their embrace. The special Selichot siddur that we use at my synagogue for this service contains the following prayer: “This is my prayer to You, O God: Let me not swerve from my life’s path, Let not my spirit wither and shrivel in its thirst for You, and lose the dew with which You sprinkled it when I was young. May my heart be open to every broken soul, to orphaned life, to every stumbler wandering unknown and groping in the shadow.”
I pray that all of us allow our hearts to be open to the possibility of what could be. I pray that we all use our eyes to see those around us. I pray that as we continue our search for meaning and purpose, we find God’s presence and guiding hand along the journey.
Shanah Tovah U’mitukah, may each one of us have a happy and healthy New Year.