By Larry Gordon
Selichos in the middle of the night has always been challenging and a little uncomfortable. But that’s probably only true here in the U.S., where we lead a hybrid lifestyle that combines a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s a concoction of combined lifestyles that are often mysterious, if not contradictory.
That first night of pre‑Rosh Hashanah Selichos occurs (in the Ashkenazic custom, at least) this coming Saturday night, or very early Sunday morning. It takes place in some shuls just a few hours after Shabbos ends, at about 10 p.m., or as late as 1 a.m., depending on the prevailing custom.
The focus of the Selichos prayers is on asking forgiveness for any wrongs we may have committed during the past year. But it is also an opportunity for synagogues to showcase their cantorial talent in advance of the services these chazzanim will lead over the High Holy Days that, after much anticipation, are now drawing seriously near.
There is a season for everything, so this indeed is the season of introspection and forgiveness. Some of us have been doing this for longer periods than others, which can sometimes create a situation where a wandering mind may be disposed to ask: Where we are going with all this?
On a pedestrian level, I can suggest a few things that we need to get done. First and foremost, this is the time for serious teshuvah. Teshuvah—or literally “return”—is an idea and a philosophy that makes living possible and worthwhile. Our sages say that the concept of teshuvah preceded the very creation of the world. In other words, there is no possibility of living in a world where the concept of teshuvah does not exist. And it is not just an abstract concept that applies only to others.
Teshuvah is unique to Jewish life. Chassidic thought dabbles in the idea that teshuvah is essentially time travel that exists on a real, non-science-fiction level. Teshuvah, in particular at this time of year, allows us the option to look back over the year and focus on occurrences that we are possibly not too proud of. We can summon up feelings of regret and remorse accompanied by a commitment to never behave like that again.
In other words, we are afforded the opportunity to travel back to something that occurred in the past and deal with it on this very special emotional and cosmic plane. Our masters take this idea a step further and write that this type of serious exercise even allows sins of the past to be turned into mitzvos. How is that possible? Well, it is explained, if an event that did damage or created a bad situation becomes the catalyst for change and reformation, then the event itself can be transformed in the higher worlds from something once seen as destructive into an agent of positive change.
So, the past is not always the past, and bygones are not necessarily bygones or water under the bridge. We possess, especially at this time of year, the ability to travel back in time and rearrange events of the past year, or perhaps even much earlier, and reshape them. I think that’s an exciting challenge.
So as a way of kicking off that season, we rouse ourselves from our slumber in the middle of the night to beseech the Divine to recognize us, hear us, see us, and forgive us. I understand, by the way, that those of us in the Ashkenazic community have it pretty easy as far as scheduling is concerned. In the Sephardic community, Selichos are said every morning throughout the month of Elul. Not so, however by the Ashkenazim. This year the calendar features a full week of pre-Rosh Hashanah Selichos, commencing with early Sunday morning and running through the next Sunday, which is erev Rosh Hashanah.
I’ve always been enamored by these final few days of the year which is currently doing a soft fade into the past. Perhaps it involves a little bit of time travel as we have the luxury of looking back at last year’s Elul and the prelude to last year’s holidays and can hopefully now draw the conclusion that those prayers seemed to have been somewhat accepted. So if that is indeed the case, then all we really need to do is try to replicate the last effort and make some positive and forward-looking adjustments that will hopefully be acceptable on high.
We all know there are a great many things that we need to pray for this year, both communally and personally. Israel—Eretz Yisrael and its people—are foremost on our minds, as well as the continually unsettling situation in the overall Middle East. Beyond that, there are our families and personal lives, which covers the gamut from health to our livelihoods and the so many items that fall in between.
The great risk inherent in regular prayer is that of becoming complacent and perhaps indulging in the exercise out of rote or some kind of external expectations. Too many people today feel that G‑d is somewhat distant and perhaps even uninvolved in our everyday lives. But then again, we see miracles taking place around us every day. Maybe the issue is that the miracles are so common that we have begun to take them for granted. I think we have to address working out those issues somehow.
It looks to me that different people have a variety of ways to prepare themselves and to adjust to the appropriate High Holy Day mindset. Some will be taking buses after Shabbos to the shul is Westhampton Beach to hear the amazing voice of Cantor Netanel Hershtik. Others will be viewing Holocaust films before Selichos as a way to adjust our thinking and frame of reference as we enter the season of teshuvah and the time on the calendar when we coronate the King of Kings.
The month of Elul is a time when we are told that “the King is in the field,” that G‑d is more easily accessible than at perhaps any other time during the year. The story is told about a group of chassidim who were celebrating Shabbos with good food and good drink during Elul. An observer inquired of them how it was possible for them to indulge in such revelry when Jews were under attack, when the Holy Temples in Jerusalem were in a state of destruction, and Jews the world over were in peril. The observer questioned them further, asking how they could party this way while the King was not in His house (the Temple in Jerusalem). Their response was direct and to the point. “You’re right,” they responded. “The King is indeed not home. But that is because He is out here at this time of year with us.”
One of the most interesting and inspiring stories I have ever heard about Selichos was one that a rabbi told his congregation in the Five Towns some years ago. I don’t really know if the intent was to have the story widely circulated, so for now the rabbi will remain anonymous.
It was a few decades ago and the rabbi was about 19 years old and working at a glatt kosher hotel in the Catskills as a waiter for the summer. It was near the end of the summer, I suppose late August, and as was a tradition in days gone by in the Catskills, it was a routine manner to feature some kind of show for hotel guests. On this particular Saturday night, the hotel was featuring two comedians.
After the first comedian completed his act, the master of ceremonies asked everyone to help rearrange the tables and chairs because they were going to say Selichos before the next comedian performed his act. The young man, the waiter, was quite taken aback by the announcement. What? We are going to say Selichos in between two comedians? He related that this episode was a turning point in his young life. It set him on a road to serious Torah study, to the point where he developed into a brilliant scholar with a significant following as well as an impressive and influential shul in this area.
What was it about this event all those years ago that moved him in this direction that he might not have otherwise pursued? “I stood there watching the tables and chairs being moved, getting ready for Selichos, and said to myself right then and there, ‘I’m not going to live my life in between shows.’”
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