A Thought on the Selichah of B'Motzaei Menucha
A week from Saturday night we will gather around our computers for a Zoom service of forgiveness. It is customary to gather in the synagogue in the middle of the night at this season to recite prayers seeking divine pardon, Selichot. Over the years, many synagogues have no longer recited these prayers precisely at midnight or later because of Daylight Saving Time, but have said them at the earliest possible time, at the beginning of what the Mishnah calls the middle watch of the night. Before there were clocks, it was customary to divide the hours of the day and of the night into twelve parts each that would vary in length depending on the time of the year. The twelve hours of night were divided into three “mishmarot” or “watches” of four proportional hours each, and at this time of year, the first watch would end around ten o'clock and the midnight watch would run from ten to two. Thus, it has been argued that for safety sake in some places or for convenience, we might consider the middle of the night to have begun around ten or eleven in the evening and we might say Selichot then. We, like most congregations, precede the service with an hour or so of study, discussion, or music and when we meet in person, of course, refreshments. After the preliminaries we enter into the silence of the sanctuary at night to reflect on our lives, to recall our sins and shortcomings, and to seek a new path for the year ahead.
In more traditional synagogues, throughout the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah and during the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, an early gathering is held prior to morning worship each day when people continue to offer these prayers for forgiveness. A whole collection of these liturgical poems exists and on Yom Kippur as part of our worship services throughout the day, we add the Selichot prayers as well.
My favorite Selichah prayer is entitled “B'motzaei Menucha” “With the departure of the [Day of] rest.” Obviously, it is said only on the first day of Selichot which is always on a Saturday night. Structurally, it is similar to many of the poems inserted into our liturgy at this season. It includes an alphabetical acrostic from Alef to Tav. Since it is composed of 21 lines and the alphabet has 22 Hebrew letters, the 14th line begins with both the letter nun and immediately after the letter samech (or sin, poets use them interchangeably), “Na sagveim.” At the conclusion of each three line stanza, we find words from Solomon's prayer of dedication of the First Temple, “Lishmoa el harinah v'el hatefillah,” Listen to their song and to their prayer.
Though there are many tunes for this selichah and different cantors have their own favorite melody for the refrain which the congregation is urged to join in on, I suspect that my love of this piece goes back to the first congregation I served in Dallas, TX, 45 years ago. Our service always began at midnight back then and the large 600-seat sanctuary was filled with worshippers. We had a wonderful chazzan, Sol Sanders, of blessed memory, and a choir directed by his wife, Madeline. The senior rabbi had edited the service so that it ended precisely at one o'clock in the morning. He even timed the choir pieces. This one took eight minutes from beginning to end. Over the years, I continue to hear the refrain in my head as sung by cantor and choir but I've never been able to find the melody for the verses. None of the cantors I've asked recognize the tune so I suspect it was an original piece by Cantor Sanders. Mrs. Sanders told me some years ago when I asked, that she would not know where to begin looking for the music. So it is trapped in my head solely as an annual earworm at this season.
The Rabbinical Assembly Selichot pamphlet renders the opening introductory passage as: “The Sabbath has ended, night has come; we approach You with earnest plea. O You who dwell in the heavens above, bend low and hear our hymn of praise.” As with most poetry, it is difficult to give a literal translation. God is called here “Yoshev tehilah” the One enthroned on praise whom we ask to bend His ear from on high to hear our song and our prayer.
In the first stanza, we recall the Akedah, the binding of Isaac which is the Torah reading for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah and which is mentioned thoughout the holiday liturgy as well. We call on God to raise His right hand to do battle supposedly against the accusing angels who prosecute sinners at this season, in consideration of the one who was bound on the altar (Isaac) and for whom a ram was substituted. Protect us, his descendants, when we call out in the night. Listen to our song and our prayer.
The next line that opens the second stanza is filled with alliteration: Drosh na dorshecha b'dorsham panecha. Seek out those who seek You when they seek out Your countenance. Let them find You in Your dwelling in the heavens and do not ignore their cries for Your graciousness. Listen to our song and our prayer.
As we come to the third stanza we confess that we are shaking and trembling like a woman in travail who is bringing forth a firstborn child (Hebrew puts that into a single word, k'mavkirah, from the root b'chor, firstborn.) Wipe out the filth (of their sin) and they will acknowledge Your wonders. Listen to our song and prayer.
Indeed the fourth stanza praises God as the Creator of every creature that has ever been formed. You are the one who prepared a remedy (teref from terufah) to extricate us from our troubles. The poet is alluding to Teshuvah, repentance, that the rabbis say was among those things which preceded Creation. God freely shows us grace from His hidden treasury which He gave Moses a glimpse of when he ascended to heaven. Listen to our song and prayer.
It is from that treasury that we seek forgiveness in the next stanza as we acknowledge how great are the sins of Your assembly. Please, we ask, support us from the treasury of grace prepared in the heavens as we come bringing our plea before You. Listen to our song and prayer.
Throwing ourselves on God's mercy we ask that He overlook our sins and acknowledge our suffering, find those who cry out to You, to be righteous, You who work wonders. Listen to our cries, God, Lord of Hosts. Hear our song and prayer.
In the final stanza, we return to the synagogue. Accept our prayers as we stand here in the night, accept them as if they were burnt offerings and sacrifices from the ancient Temple. Show us Your wonders, You who do mighty deeds. Lishmoa el harinah v'el hatefillah, listening to our song and our prayer.
As with all selichot, so with this one, we readily admit our shortcomings, yet we turn to God with confidence that as He accepted a ram in place of Isaac our father on the altar, and as He receives prayers in place of sacrifice, so may He shower us with grace, show us His miracles in this world and grant us a year of blessing as we offer joyous song and heartfelt prayer on this night and throughout the holidays ahead.