This is the week that selichot – the penitential prayers that are added to the weekday morning prayer service – are recited in the synagogue according to Ashkenazic custom. Sephardic Jews have been reciting selichot in their morning prayer services since the start of the month of Elul. There are different customs even within these two main groupings of Jews as to which particular penitential prayer is recited on which of the days preceding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
I have always been intrigued by the fact that most of the selichot prayers deal with the national angst and exile of the Jewish people rather than concentrating exclusively on the personal penitential aspect of the individual Jew who is actually doing the praying. Of course there are many personal prayers included in the selichot liturgy but there is strong concentration and emotion expressed regarding the plight of the Jewish people on a national and global scale.
This is understandable since most of the selichot prayers were composed during the Middle Ages when the Jewish people, especially in Europe, found itself in very desperate and abusive straits. Nevertheless the emphasis on national troubles instead of concentration solely on personal failing carries with it a strong message about the reality of being Jewish.
One’s individual fate and even the judgment of Heaven upon that person on Rosh Hashana are inextricably bound to the general fate and welfare of the Jewish people as a whole. That is in reality the message of the book of Yonah that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Yonah knows that the storm that strikes the ship is because of him. So he answers his fellow passengers and crew on the ship who ask him to explain why these events are occurring he simply states: “I am a Jew!” He sought to escape that reality but the Lord, by means of the storm on the sea, has returned him to it.
Thus the concept of selichot is, of necessity, national as well as personal. One cannot expect to survive spiritually and morally as a Jew by separating one’s self from the Jewish people and its destiny. In effect, all those that deny their Jewishness, who substitute foreign ideologies and current political correctness for true Jewish Torah values, who are the first to raise their voices against the Jewish people and its state, who deny their Jewishness by assimilation and intermarriage, doom themselves eventually not to be heard and accounted for in the continually unfolding Jewish story on a personal level as well.
Someone who does not wish to share in the burden of the Jewish nation as a whole unfortunately cuts the cord of Jewishness that grants one identity, self-worth and an overall purpose in life. The selichot prayers are so constructed as to be a retelling of the Jewish story and a declaration of fealty to Jewish destiny. In that context the selichot prayer services connect us to our Creator but also to the Jewish people in all of its generations both past and future.
There are many emotions that accompany the advent of the selichot season. Memories of past High Holy Day seasons, of generations that have passed on, of previous synagogue services and other venues of prayer, of childhood wonderment and of more mature seriousness and awe, all these flood our minds and hearts when the prayers of selichot are recited and the melodies of holiness are heard and sung. The special quality of this time of the year, of anticipation and tension, of hopeful confidence combined with trepidation, reflects itself in our attention to the immortal words of the prayer services.
Every possible human hope and emotion is to be found in those words. I always have felt that the preparation for Rosh Hashana should include a review of the texts of the prayer services beforehand so that one can savor the majesty and genius that lies embedded in the legacy of our prayer services. The selichot prayers come to us from Babylonia and North Africa, the Land of Israel and Spain, France and Germany, and Central and Eastern Europe. They cover centuries of Jewish life and creativity, piety and scholarship.
They also record for us dark days of persecutions and massacres, of trial and testing, and of hope and resilience. Their prose/poetic style may oftentimes be difficult to understand and decipher but their soul and message of genius is revealed and obvious to all those who recite their words with seriousness and intent. May the selichot season usher in to our beings and those of all of Israel as well, a renewed sense of holy purpose in our lives and may we all be blessed with a good and happy, healthy new year.