One of the things I love about Selichot services, which we hold in my shul (as in many shuls) on the Saturday night closest to Rosh Hashanah, is the chance to immerse in the melodies and themes of the Days of Awe again.
For those who recite the prayers of tachanun regularly during the year, and/or who recite a vidui prayer as part of the bedtime shema, some of the petitionary prayers in Selichot are regular companions. But for many of us, Selichot is the first opportunity of the year to encounter some of the beloved melodies and themes and words we haven't heard since last Yom Kippur came to its close. These are some of my favorite prayers in our vast and deep liturgy.
"Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul..." This short prayer is one I first learned at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York, when I went there for a Shabbat Shuvah retreat in 2003. I remember feeling that I was returning again to the home of my soul on at least two levels: returning to Elat Chayyim and to the presence of my Jewish Renewal community felt like a return, just as returning to the Days of Awe was a return. At that moment in time, I was still so amazed to discover that I could come home in a spiritual sense that every time I did come home in that way, it moved me to tears.
"Adon ha-slichot..." I think I first learned this one at the Brookline Havurah Minyan, back when I used to go there with my sister and her family on Yom Kippur, years and years ago. I love the sinuous Middle Eastern melody I learned there for this old piyyut. It translates to something like, "Master of forgiveness, examiner of hearts, revealer of depths, declarer of righteousnes -- we have sinned before You; have mercy on us!" It's an alphabetical acrostic, an A-to-Z of pleading for forgiveness. God, with every letter of the alef-bet, with everything in us from beginning to end, we yearn for Your forgiveness. What could be a better melodic reminder of the themes of this season writ large? We have missed the mark. We yearn for closeness with our Source.
"Ana b'koakh, gedulat y'mincha, tatir ts'rurah..." We've been using this one at my shul for Selichot services for some years now. This prayer is much beloved in Jewish Renewal, I think because of our neo-Hasidic roots. Our beloved teacher Reb Zalman comes from a Chabad lineage, and in the Hasidic world this prayer has many purposes and uses. This whole prayer is considered to be one long mystical Name of God. And it asks God -- in Reb Zalman's singable English translation -- "Source of mercy, with loving strength, untie our tangles!" I love the way it names God not as the source of justice (a common metaphor at this time of year) but as the source of mercy -- and the idea that God can untie our tangled places is incredibly resonant for me as we move through this season of teshuvah.
"Achat sha'alti, me'eit Adonai, otah avakesh..." This is probably the prayer I've known the longest in my Jewish Renewal life. During my first week-long retreat at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I attended morning services every day. During that week we moved into the month of Elul, so we sang this excerpt from psalm 27 every day, since reciting this psalm daily during Elul is customary in Jewish tradition. I had never heard the psalm before that week. By the end of the week, the melody had become one of my touchstones, something to which I could return when I wanted to be more connected with God. Every year I rejoice when it's time to start singing it every day again.
These are prayers -- not necessarily prayer, if you take my meaning. Which is to say: these prayers are beautiful containers into which one can pour the innermost prayers of one's heart. My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) likes to say that our written liturgy is like a cookbook; it's a collection of recipes for spiritual experience. But in order to make the recipes, you have to add ingredients; in order to make the prayers real, you have to add your own heart and soul and being.
The prayer of this time of year -- for me -- is this:
Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe!
Shekhinah, Source of all Being!
I miss You. I miss closeness with You.
I have missed the mark. I've allowed myself to become distant from You.
Forgive me. Embrace me.
Help me know that I am forgiven and that I can try again.
That is my heart's prayer.