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Tachanun: prayers of penitence

Some months ago, when I began my semi-regular daily davvening practice, I spent a while staring at the pages marked Tachanun: Prayers of Penitence. Six short prayers, bookended by the kaddish (which serves both to magnify and sanctify God, and to alert the worshipper to turning-points within the service), Tachanun includes a few passages I'd only ever seen in the machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook). 

It felt strange to imagine praying ashamnu (the communal acrostic of ways in which we've missed the proverbial mark) or calling upon God as Avinu, Malkeinu ("Our father, our king"), at the tail-end of wintertime; those prayers are linked, in my mind and heart, with the transformative season of fall. And though I could easily connect with other elements of the weekday morning service -- the desire to cultivate morning gratitude, and the portions of the weekday liturgy that match what we pray on Shabbat -- I had trouble relating to the notion of saying penitential prayers every day.

"Maybe when Elul comes," I thought. "Ramping up to the Days of Awe: that's a good time to start saying tachanun. I'll wait until then."

This morning -- spectacular September! Blue sky unblemished by cloud; the mountains around me resplendent in late summer's dark greens, hints of red and yellow beginning to peek through -- I carried my siddur and my tallit and my tefillin outside, and davvened the morning service on the deck. Around me the rise and fall of cricketsong and the periodic piercing call of the small hawk in the dead tree offered accompaniment for the morning blessings, for the shema and the prayers that surround it, and for the weekday amidah. And then I reached the page I usually flip past, and remembered that it's Elul now, and began reading the prayers for penitence.

Of course, an hour later as I began researching tachanun in order to blog about it, I learned that this string of prayers traditionally isn't said on Rosh Chodesh (New Moon, e.g. the first of the month, which would be today.) Whoops. That'll teach me to take on a new practice without learning about it first. Anyway, tachanun dates back to Talmudic times, when it was said lying face-down. Today many people say tachanun with the head bent into the crook of the elbow, a kind of nod towards the prostration of olden days, though some argue that even the leaning should only be done when a Torah scroll is present, and that the leaning is only appropriate in a communal context. (Unless you're in Jerusalem, which I am not.)

The version of tachanun in my prayerbook is fairly short and sweet, so it doesn't add much time to my davvening regimen. What kept me from saying it sooner, and what might make it challenging for me to continue saying it once the fall holiday season ends, is the subject matter. Do I really want to start my day by asserting my flaws and my need for God's mercy and compassion? Apparently I'm not the only one who has difficulty with this aspect of tachanun -- in Why We Hate Tachanun, Rabbi Francis Nataf observes that many of us are uncomfortable with the negativity of focusing on our shortcomings...but, he argues, we'd better learn to get comfortable with it, because it's important.

As I think about it, I suspect he's right. Ego can blind us to the ways in which we fall short of our highest selves, and these  prayers remind us to cultivate humility. Asserting aloud that we make mistakes keeps us mindful of those mistakes, and from there it's an easy hop to the desire for improvement. Though I relate this kind of introspection with the teshuvah focus of the holiday season, I suspect the sages who assembled the liturgy made tachanun a regular weekday practice in order to link every day with the process of reflection, contrition, and resolution that we engage in as the High Holidays draw near.

One of my favorite teachings about tachanun is adapted from this drash. The month of Elul has 29 days, and of those 29 there are five when tachanun is not recited: rosh chodesh (new moon) and the four Shabbatot. That leaves 24 recitations -- and as there are 24 hours in a day, the 24 recitations can serve to remind us that the process of teshuvah, return and repentance, is ongoing and can permeate everything we do. As we begin the ascent toward the Days of Awe, may our days and nights be imbued with the earnest desire to align ourselves with our Source, and may our prayers of penitence give rise to an awareness of blessing.

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