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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on Selichot

In last week's “Thought,” I wrote about one of the distinctive prayers recited at the Selichot services each year. As I explained there, it is customary to gather on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah to recite the Selichot prayers of forgiveness. We will do so this week at ten o'clock via Zoom and will precede the service with an hourlong discussion at 9:00 p.m of a story by Israeli Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, “HaMitpachat,” “The Kerchief,” with its hint of an appearance by the Messiah. This week, I wanted to look at the entire Selichot service, utilizing the somewhat abridged service published by the Rabbinical Assembly that we will be using, but with reference to the fuller traditional version as well.

For me, Selichot always seems like a prelude to the High Holiday season, the overture preceding a much more elaborate piece of musical theater and like an overture, the themes found within it will recur later in the larger opus. Certain prayers and familiar melodies announce the arrival of this season and serve as a preview of “coming attractions.” After the introductory psalm, Ashrei, whose closing lines are intoned in solemn majesty, we hear the familiar grand melody of the Kaddish as chanted at the beginning of the Musaf prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. With a flourish, the cantor begins,“Yitgadal v'yitkada-a-a-a-sh sh'may-ay rabbah.” As he continues, a familiar melody appears and people sing along, “b'chayeichon u-u-uv'yom-eichon uv'chayei d'chol beit yisrael, ba-a-gala-a uvizma-an ka-a-a-reev v'imru-u a-a-mein.” The congregation then responds with the well-known, familiar melody of “Y'hei sh'may rabbah m'vorach...,” sung with lusty enthusiasm in a martial cadence, hanging onto almaya at the end of the line before pronouncing yitbarach. The cantor goes on and they join him once again at tushb'chata until the final amein..

The verses that follow are much less familiar though some may recognize a verse or a phrase that appears in the service on Kol Nidre night. We praise God who listens to our prayers and before whom all must come and bow low. He is just and we are embarrassed by our sins. We read a few pages in Hebrew or English translation, the leader chants several more familiar verses culminating in the passage beginning with “Haneshamah lach, ve-haguf poalach,” “The soul is Yours, the body is Your creation. Lord have compassion upon Your handiwork...Forgive us, our Father, for in our abundant folly, we have erred, pardon us, our King, for our sins are many”

The poems of Selichot follow and we read them in Hebrew or English until we come upon the familiar introductory section leading into the recitation of God's thirteen attributes of mercy. We begin, El erech apayim ata, most patient God, master of mercy We go on to speak of how God revealed to Moses these attributes of forgiveness at Mount Sinai, at Israel's lowest point of sinfulness, following the Golden Calf incident. “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: 'The Lord, the Lord, God is gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness, and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.'” Again, our ears perk up and we join in the familiar melody, “Adonay, Adonay, El Rachum v'chanun...” “And You forgave our iniquities and sins. Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned, pardon us our Sovereign, for we have transgressed. For You, O Lord, are good and forgiving and full of lovingkindness for all who call on You.” In our booklet this passage of the thirteen attributes appears twice. In the traditional Selichot services, we find it four times, each preceded by one of the Medieval poems of Selichot, read in Hebrew or English. The themes of these prayers are familiar, we recognize our shortcomings and sins, as we place our hope in a forgiving God who will accept our prayers and grant us forgiveness. Following the second recital of these attributes in our booklets, we sing the poem of B'Motzaei Menucha that I wrote about last week, the distinctive Selichah which speaks of approaching God as Shabbat departs. The cantor chants the verses and the congregation joins in with the chorus of “Lishmoa el harinah v'el hatefillah” calling on God to hearken to our song and our prayer.

From this point on, the prayers are nearly identical with the Yom Kippur selichot section recited on Kol Nidre night and many of the same prayers appear throughout the day on Yom Kippur as well. Our booklet omits the lengthy passage that traditionally leads into the Sh'ma Koleinu verses ending with a plea to bring us back to Zion where we will bring our offerings to the Temple which shall be called a House of Prayer for all nations, quoting Isaiah. We will read that section on Yom Kippur, but it does not appear in this shortened version of Selichot. Sh'ma Koleinu is truly the high point in this service. When we are in the synagogue, the ark is opened and the congregation rises and repeats each line after the cantor, who chants with an emotion-laden voice these stirring words. “Sh'ma Koleinu, hear our voice, O Lord, pity us, save us; accept our prayer with compassion and kindness. Hashiveinu Adonay elecha v'nashuva, Help us return to You and we shall return; renew our lives as when we were young. Al tashlicheinu milfanecha, Cast us not away from Your presence; take not Your holy spirit from us. Al tashlicheinu l'eit ziknah, Cast us not away when we are old, when strength is gone, do not abandon us.” When I was younger, I remember some older cantors breaking into tears at this point. Now that I have reached that age myself, I might shed a few tears as well. To hear some folks speak during this pandemic, old people are more likely to be given Covid than Coved (honor) these days..

From Sh'ma Koleinu, after a brief reading, we continue to the introduction of the Vidui, the short confessional prayer of Ashamnu. We show our faith in God's mercy by singing these words interspersed with the chorus of ay-ay-ay, joyfully coming before God for judgment. We customarily beat our breast as we say each word in this alphabetical listing of sins. It is composed in the plural indicating that while none of us, hopefully, has committed all of these transgressions, we recognize our responsibility as a community for the sins of our society and confessing these sins, seek divine forgiveness. In the traditional version of Selichot, the Vidui and its surrounding prayers is said three times. In our shortened version, we chant it just once. It is said that one of the early Jewish Supreme Court justices, either Frankfurter or Cardozo, refused to recite Ashamnu, claiming he did not wish to perjure himself for he had never committed such terrible crimes. We need not fear perjury for Ashamnu does not reflect our personal sins, but those that perhaps may have been committed by our people, wherever they may be and our sages taught that all Jews are responsible for one another, kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh..

The editors of our booklet have also shortened the section which generally follows the Vidui, omitting several prayers that we will see once more on Yom Kippur and reducing it to a single page litany where the reader goes through a listing of great biblical figures whose prayers were answered by the Almighty and he chants, “He who answered Abraham our father on Mount Moriah, to which the congregation responds, Hu ya'aneinu, May He answer us. He who answered his son Isaac, bound on the altar, Hu ya'aneinu, May He answer us, and so forth mentioning 19 biblical heroes whose prayers were answered. We conclude with the final, twentieth line, “He who answered all the righteous and pious, pure and upright ones, Hu ya'aneinu, may He answers us as well. The traditional version adds a paragraph in Aramaic which once again calls upon God to answer our prayers speedily. Perhaps Aramaic as the language of the people provided a more intimate conclusion to the formal recitation of the Selichot.

Customarily, the selichot service concludes with the recitation of the Tachanun prayers, the prayers of supplication that are offered as part of the regular weekday morning service with our head lowered to our arm. Our booklet takes just a portion of that prayer including Psalm 6 which begins, “O Lord, rebuke me, but not in anger; O Lord, chasten me, but not in wrath.” The Psalm is followed by the concluding prayers of Tachanun including the singing of the three verses of Shomer Yisrael, “Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel and do not bring destruction upon the nation who proclaims, Sh'ma Yisrael.” This passage also contains the final line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father and Sovereign, be gracious and answer us. Though we are lacking in good deeds, be merciful and save us.” The editor inserts a contemporary prayer as a closing reading ending with these words, “And when my time comes – let me slip into the night demanding nothing, God, of man or of You.” The leader then finishes the Selichot prayers with the Kaddish Shalem, the Full Kaddish, asking that our prayers and supplications be accepted.

I've always concluded the service with the singing of Yigdal to the traditional High Holiday melody, again seeing this special tune as inaugurating the holiday season. At the conclusion of Yigdal, we extend for the first time this season the greeting of L'shanah Tovah t'kateivu v'teichateimu, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. If the last two verbs are a bridge too far for your Hebrew, a shorter version will suffice, and is equally acceptable, simply saying “Shanah tovah” dropping the lamed which means “for” and wishing all “A Good Year.” With all we have been through in the past year, we'll take it.

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