Selichot

The Days of Awe begin at the next new moon. Our journey into those awesome days intensifies tomorrow night, and we'll kick off the "high holiday season" at my shul, with the service called Selichot.  Selichot means "pardons," and is the name our tradition gives to a set of poems and prayers designed to help our hearts experience teshuvah, repentance or return (in the sense of returning-to-God or re/turning ourselves in the right direction again.) Some people say the selichot prayers every day during Elul. And a lot of congregations have a special service dedicated to Selichot, as we do.

It's customary to do this on a Shabbat evening near, but not too near, to Rosh Hashanah. Since the New Year begins next weekend on Sunday night, next Shabbat would be too close -- we wouldn't have time for the experience of the Selichot to resonate in us -- so we'll do it tomorrow night.

This may be my favorite service of the year. We begin with havdalah, which I love dearly. (And I have recently come to feel especially attached to the opening prayer, which proclaims evtach v'lo efchad, I will trust and will not be afraid.) Then we dip into some of my favorite prayers of the Days of Awe -- prayers whose words, and whose melodies, speak to me deeply. We'll sing some prayers which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to music; we'll read some poems which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to words. And midway through the service we'll pause for a short writing exercise.

People will be invited to write down on index cards, anonymously, places where they've (we've) missed the mark in the last year. Things for which they (we) seek forgiveness as the Days of Awe approach. I'll collect those cards, and will leave the cards and pencils and a basket for collecting them out in the synagogue lobby for about ten days so those who don't make it to Selichot services can still participate. And then I'll use the words on those cards to craft a personalized Al Chet prayer for Yom Kippur morning, co-written by our community, expressing the things for which our hearts most seek forgiveness and release.

If you're local to western Massachusetts, you're welcome to join us at 8pm at Congregation Beth Israel tomorrow night. And if you would like to dip into the prayers and songs of Selichot tomorrow night by yourself, the pdf file of our service is here for you.

SelichotCover

Selichot 5776 [pdf]


Through the equinox door

32062We're approaching the doorway between the old year and the new.

Just as Jewish tradition teaches us to put a mezuzah on our doorposts, to make us mindful as we transition from one place to the next, the holidays act as mezuzot on the doorposts of our year. We're moving from one place to the next. What memories do we want to bring with us? What baggage do we want to leave behind, outside the door?

This weekend we're approaching another doorway, too: the equinox, the hinge between summer and fall. Every door offers a chance to pause and look back. In the season now ending, where did I live up to my hopes for who I would be, and where did I fall short? What do I want to lift up and remember, and what to I want to let go of, to release?

What do I want to bring with me into the new year, and into the coming season of preparing to lie fallow for the winter? What do I need to focus on so that the qualities I want to cultivate will naturally arise in me?

I posted recently about Why I love Selichot services. (Those who receive this blog via email may have received an incomplete version of the post by accident -- please do click on the link and read the whole thing if you are so inclined!) But one thing I didn't mention in that post is that this year, Selichot comes on the eve of September 21, which is for me the first day of autumn.

For what do I need to say "I'm sorry" in order to enter the new season, the new year, with a clean slate? Where do I need to create repair in my relationships with other people, with my own soul, with the Earth, with my Source? What old resentments or frustrations do I need to shed in order to walk through this doorway with my spine straight and my shoulders unclenched?

Fall is coming. The new year is coming. Who do I want to become on the other side of this door?

 

This is a variation on the teaching I offered during this morning's meditation minyan at my shul.

Related: First day of fall, 2012.


Why I love Selichot

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.

 

Selichot-1I 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.

 


The Gates Are Opening: Selichot

We arrive in a torrential rainstorm. The winds are gusting and water is pouring off the metal roof of the synagogue in sheets. But the synagogue shines brightly (to my great relief, we do not lose power!) and all ten members of the cast of The Gates Are Closing make it in despite the rain.

We usually draw about 25 people for Selichot, and this year is no different. The weather advisories and tornado warnings surely keep some folks from joining us, but enough people venture forth in the rain to make the small sanctuary feel populated, and that's all we need. 

Every character in the play is struggling with her or his history and memories. Everyone is searching for something. Everyone has a deep sorrow or question with which they perennially wrestle when this holiday rolls around. I wonder, as the play is unfolding, which stories are resonating with which of our audience members.

For me, the most powerful parts of the play are the parts where the characters' individual stories interweave with the liturgy. I know that this is because I have learned and led and loved this liturgy, and I'm always looking to interweave it with the lives of the people in the room, to make it feel real and meaningful to the people in the room.

After the play is done, we break for a brief intermission. People eat pumpkin bread and blueberry cake, drink apple cider, and chat about the play while a few of us move chairs around and re-set the sanctuary for Selichot. Then I start playing guitar, and everyone files back into the sanctuary.

I dim the lights and we make havdalah. By now the rain has stopped and our voices fill the room. I offer this year's standing explanation of what Selichot is for: it's the sourdough starter which gets our process of teshuvah (repentance / return) into high gear. We'll have all week for whatever awakens in us tonight to percolate and rise.

We sing the opening songs of our shortened Selichot service; we read my selichot poem aloud. And then I play quiet guitar and sing wordless niggunim while people write down whatever they want to atone for this year, whatever they want to release. I play the Janowski Avinu Malkeinu and segue into the waltz refrain we all seem to have grown up with. Some people hum along.

As the last few people are finishing up their cards, I ask for a volunteer to choose one of the two poems in the middle of the booklet to read aloud. And then we move into our last songs. I offer a word about Ana B'Koach, about what it means to me to ask God to untie our tangles -- all of the places where we tie ourselves in knots over our perceived failings, the things we should have done but didn't, the things we shouldn't have done but did.

We end with Return Again, and I offer an impromptu closing benediction, and we sing it one more time, and then we are done, and everyone gathers their things and melts away into the dark but no longer stormy night.


A short service for Selichot

Selichot is coming up -- the service of prayers designed to help get us "in the mood" for the Days of Awe, the formal kick-off to this season of teshuvah / repentance / return. In the tradition of which I am a part, Selichot services are held on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah -- assuming that there is a Saturday which is at least three days before the holiday. Since this year Rosh Hashanah begins on a Sunday, Selichot services will be held a week prior -- Saturday, September 8. If you'll permit me a baking metaphor: Selichot services are the sourdough starter which activates our souls. The services need a few days to percolate in us before we can really rise.

This year, my congregation will be presenting a staged reading of a play on the evening of Selichot -- Merle Feld's The Gates Are Closing. So, I've abbreviated the Selichot service we've done in recent years. What I'm sharing here is a stripped-down version of the service, the parts I absolutely couldn't bear to let go of!

On page 5, there is a mention of pausing to write down what we need to release. This is a tradition I learned at Elat Chayyim many years ago. We'll provide index cards and pencils; as I play quiet music on my guitar, people will be invited to write down whatever they need to let go of, whatever sins or missings-of-the-mark they want to atone for during this season of repentance, and we'll collect those cards in a basket. I'll use some of those texts (anonymously, of course) in one of the Al Chet prayers of Yom Kippur.

Anyway: if you are looking for a Selichot observance but won't be able to attend one at a shul near you, you're welcome to use ours. It's enclosed. (And if you live nearby and want to attend our production of The Gates are Closing, or our Selichot service, you are most welcome! The reading of the play will take place at 6pm and the service will be at 8, followed by a dessert reception and a chance to talk about what the evening has opened up in us.)

May the coming Days of Awe bring you discernment, transformation, and blessing.

 


 

CBI-logo

סלח לנו

S'lach Lanu

Forgive Us

 

a short service for Selichot

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

 

Download Selichot2012 [pdf]


Looking forward to selichot

It astonishes me that only three Shabbatot remain between now and Rosh Hashanah. How did the end of the year come so quickly?

I met yesterday with my rabbi to talk about Congregation Beth Israel's selichot services, the service held on the Saturday night right before Rosh Hashanah -- a chance to get people into the right frame of mind for entering the Days of Awe. We're going to do a slightly different service this year than what's been done in years past. We'll begin with havdalah, of course. We'll sing a few favorite melodies which will be familiar to most people present. But there will be new melodies, too, and some new bits of liturgy. The piece I'm probably most excited about is introducing my community to "Ana B'Koach."

The words of Ana b'Koach in Hebrew & transliteration.

My friend Reb David Seidenberg calls "Ana B'Koach" one of the "masterpieces of mystical prayer." (Here's the NeoHasid page on Ana B'Koach, which features some explanation, some history, and the words of the prayer in Hebrew, transliteration, and English.) I first encountered this prayer when I started hanging around in Jewish Renewal circles. It's a favorite prayer in that community because of Renewal's neo-Hasidic roots. We sing it sometimes during morning prayer, and sometimes during kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evenings.

As Reb David notes, nowhere in the prayer do any traditional names of God appear -- but the prayer itself is considered to be one long name of God, which is why it ends with the line "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed," "Blessed is God's glorious kingdom forever and ever" (or, in Reb Zalman's translation, "Through time and space, Your glory shines, Majestic One.")

At our selichot services, we'll be using the prayer as a lead-in to a meditation around the radical idea that every single time/place we've missed the mark in our entire lives is always forgiven. Whenever I seriously think about that, it blows me away. Everything I've ever done wrong, in my relationships with other people, in my relationship with myself, in my relationship with God: all of it is forgiven. What would it mean to truly understand that, and to let all of that old baggage go?

"Ana B'Koach" is the prayer I turn to when I'm asking for help in letting go of something that has me all worked up in guilt and recriminations. I'll be singing Hanna Tiferet's melody for the prayer, which features just the first line (Ana b'koach, gedulat y'mincha, tatir tzrurah -- in Reb Zalman's translation: "Source of Mercy, with loving strength, untie our tangles!") and that baruch shem k'vod line I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. And then I'll sing the English translation using Reb Zalman's melody (which is the final melody on this Ana B'Khoach niggunim page, again courtesy of NeoHasid.org.) So often we tie ourselves in knots over things we've done or haven't done. This season of teshuvah (repentance / return) is a perfect time to work on untangling what's become tense and knotted in our spiritual lives.

We have a few other treats in store for selichot: one exercise which we hope will help people connect with some of their own prayers during this season, a few poems and prayers which we hope will awaken something in their listeners. I'll have my first chance to recite Petition, a prayer for selichot which I wrote last year. It should be a beautiful service. If you're in the Berkshire area on the evening of Saturday, September 4, I hope you'll come.


Petition (a prayer for selichot)

This coming Saturday, when Shabbat has come to an end, it will be time in my community for selichot, a service of prayers which we recite to prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe. (You can learn more about selichot here at MyJewishLearning.com; there are study resources at this S'lichot-URJ page, and for something completely different -- from a Reform resource to an Orthodox one! -- you might try this essay at Aish called Slichot and the 13 Attributes.)

A while back, my friend Jan (not this Jan, but this Jan) asked whether I'd written any prayers for selichot. I hadn't, but made a note to try to write one during Elul this year. I humbly offer that prayer here. Feel free to use it, share it, daven it, and respond to it in whatever ways you feel moved.

If you do share it, I ask that you please keep my name and blog URL attached so that people know where else to find more of my work; thank you kindly. And if you have other creative selichot readings to share, feel free to post links in comments...


PETITION (A PRAYER FOR SELICHOT)


Compassionate One, remember
we are your children

help us to know again
that we are cradled

during these awesome days
of changing light

we want to return
to your lap, to your arms

remind us how to believe
that we are loved

not for our achievements
but because we are yours

as the moon of Elul wanes
and the new year rushes in

hear us with compassion
enfold us, don't let us go


[petition.mp3]