Those who subscribe to Velveteen Rabbi via email or RSS may have received an early / partial draft of this post; sorry about that, that wasn't supposed to happen! Here's the post in full.
I love Selichot. The word "selichot" means "pardons," and can refer to the series of teshuvah-related (repentance / return - related) prayers which we recite during the Days of Awe. It can also refer -- as it does in this instance -- to the service which begins the High Holiday season, on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, during which we begin singing some of those prayers once again for the first time in a long while.
I love it because it's intimate. Of course I love throwing back the walls of our sanctuary and filling the whole building with chairs for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a joy to see so many faces during the Days of Awe! But there is something extra-special for me about the intimacy of our Selichot services, which are usually attended by 20 or 25 people. I love being able to look around the room and see the faces of people who are dear to me.
I love it because it begins with havdalah. I don't make havdalah often enough. Every time I do it, I remember how much I love it, and I think: why don't I do this every week? (I should do it every week, I know! It is the closing ritual which bookends lighting Shabbat candles; I do that every week, so why don't I always do the short ritual at the other end of Shabbat?) I love the scent of spicy cloves, the light of the braided candle held aloft, the melody of the blessings.
I love it because it launches us into the High Holiday season. We are not a community where a daily minyan is reciting tachanun (the service of penitential prayers) on a regular basis, so for most of us, prayers like "Avinu Malkeinu" ("Our Father, Our King") and the vidui are only experienced during the Days of Awe. Selichot comes a few days before the holidays begin, and singing these beloved melodies and ancient words helps to emotionally get us going.
I love it because my little shul has adopted a practice I learned at the old Elat Chayyim years ago. At Selichot, while I play quiet guitar music, people write down (anonymously) on index cards things for which they seek forgiveness -- misdeeds and mis-steps -- places where they missed the mark in the last year -- baggage from which they seek release. These are collected and I weave them into one of the "Al Chet" prayers of Yom Kippur.
I love it because there's poetry. Every year we sing, and read, and daven, the words of some classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) and also the words of some contemporary authors -- this year including Fay Zwicky, Marge Piercy, Norman Hirsch. These words stir me deeply, and so does the experience of moving from Adon Ha-Slichot (traditional) to Naomi Shihab Nye's "Burning the Old Year" (non-traditional.) There's something in the interweaving of sources which opens my heart right up.
I love it because it's optional. At least, in the paradigm of the liberal Jewish world where I serve. People come to high holiday services for all kinds of reasons (including inchoate feelings of obligation) and I welcome everyone, always, regardless of what brought you in the door. But I know that those who come for Selichot are doing so purely because they want to be there, because they want to be on the journey of teshuvah, because they want to come together and sing and ponder and pray.
I love it because it is one of the bookends to the intensity of the Days of Awe. The journey goes from havdalah, to Selichot, then Rosh Hashanah, then Shabbat Shuvah, then Yom Kippur, which ends with havdalah again. (This is true even when Yom Kippur falls on a weekday; when it falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the havdalah at its close is extra-special.) We begin with havdalah and we end with havdalah, but in between we've taken a spiritual journey which changes our experience of the familiar words when we recite them for the second time.
And I love it because it feels like it's mine. Even in a shul as relatively low-key as the one I am blessed to serve, the High Holidays themselves have some extra grandeur and pageantry. And that's as it should be. I try to live up to the liturgy's grandeur while also keeping our services accessible and meaningful. But Selichot services are sweet and heartfelt, earnest and down-to-earth. Selichot feels like it belongs to me, like it's a natural outgrowth of my soul and my heart.
My shul's Selichot services will be held at 8pm on Saturday night, with a potluck dessert reception to follow. If you are in or near western Massachusetts, you are welcome to join us.