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.