There were periods and places which really felt this time of year to be Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe.
The sound of the shofar every weekday of Elul sent shivers through people’s very being. So fearful were they that they might not repent in time that some would even observe a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast of speech,” and hardly speak a word to anyone during Elul. Into this pattern the Selichot, the prayers for forgiveness, fitted so naturally that if they had not existed it would have been necessary to invent them.
The name “Selichot” recalls the Psalmist’s words, “Ki imm’kha has’lihah – For with You is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4), a phrase with a rather more colloquial meaning in modern Hebrew. Not that Selichot were limited to Elul and Tishrei. In Mishnaic times, prayers for forgiveness were recited on fast days in time of drought (Ta’anit 2).
Eventually they formed part of the services on all days of intercession. They reflected a belief that suffering is caused by sin and that repentance and confession avert the evil decree.
The Selichot we recite these days at this time of year are relatively recent in origin, like other well-entrenched practices which are not really as historic as most people think. Search, for instance, for the sources of Simchat Torah, Tu Bishvat, Yizkor, Yahrzeit and even bar mitzva, and you find that in spite of their popularity they lack ancient lineage.
The development of Selichot arose out of the spiritual needs of the Jewish people. The atmosphere surrounding us late at night and early in the morning had such an emotional flavor that people would have wanted to pray then even if the formal Selichot had never been created.
Midnight was an obvious time for prayer. It was already hallowed for its tearful Tikkun Hatzot, a form of supplicatory service bewailing the destruction of the Temple.
In some places the first Selichot are said with intricate musical passion at or near midnight, with the Selichot on the other days taking place “b’ashmoret haboker – at the beginning of dawn.” There are arguments in favor of each option.
The excitement of the midnight gathering is palpable.
I well remember as a student in London in the late 1950s how the crowds would gather at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street for the midnight Selichot conducted by Cantor Simon Hass (the wags called the gathering Midnight Hass), though the spirituality was sometimes compromised by the theatrics of the occasion, and many of the attendees had come straight from an opera, play or concert.
When my pulpit career began, first at the Bayswater and then the Hampstead Synagogue, we preferred the early morning Selichot that had a solemn exhilaration that tugged at the heart. Actually the halachic writers themselves were devotees of the ashmoret haboker time slot.
The passages that made up the Selichot were at first simple and uncomplicated – biblical verses and short invocations of mercy. God’s 13 Attributes were constantly repeated. Piyyutim or poetical compositions enriched and embellished the service. These fall into four groups – Tokhahot (admonitions), Akedot (reflections on the Binding of Isaac), Techinnot (Supplications) and Bakkashot (petitions).
The piyyutim are intricate interweavings of phrases and ideas from Tanach, Talmud and Midrash, often requiring considerable learning to discern their real content. But what moves most people is not their intellectual and literary dimension but their rhyme, rhythm and emotional fervor. The result is that in terms of emotion and spirituality the Selichot are one of our most successful liturgical innovations.
Those who say Selichot would agree with Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who said, “If I had the choice, I would rather remain alive and never die. For in the world to come there are no Days of Awe. And what can any soul do without Days of Awe?” It must be said that the Selichot confront us with a theological dilemma. Their theme is, “We have sinned, You have punished us, please forgive us!” The first and last clause are unexceptionable. Human beings do sin – not because they are bound to, as in the classical Christian doctrine of Original Sin with its notion that after Adam and Eve, every human being is born tainted – but because so often they misjudge themselves and their situation, and their actions trip and tumble. In that context the heartfelt cry, “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us absolution,” is totally pertinent.
The problem comes with the mip’nei hata’einu theory – “we suffer because of our sins.” In one sense it is valid. So often we bring disaster upon our own heads, and if posterity clones our bad habits, God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” But disaster is not always our own fault. Eliezer Berkovits is blunt: anyone who claims that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is our own fault is nothing less than obscene.
But the mantra is repeated whenever something goes wrong. Someone died in an air crash, we are told, because they did not keep Shabbat. A family disintegrated, because their mezuzot were not kosher. You can multiply the examples. Every time there is a catastrophe we’re assured it must be God punishing us – floods, fires, tsunamis, whatever.
Out of the woodwork automatically come the self-appointed, self-opinionated Divine policemen and soothsayers who are sure they can read the Heavenly mind. I feel rather sorry for God with all the clever friends He has.
They all know precisely whom to blame for everything.
It’s so easy to judge other people (though harder to judge oneself). It’s certainly easy to blame God.
Most of us would rather tone down the shrillness and to say, “God, there must be an answer, but maybe it’s not yet time for You to reveal it.” Berkovits says in his Faith After the Holocaust, “There must be a dimension beyond history in which all suffering finds its redemption through God” (page 136). Within history the people of Israel are the suffering servant of Isaiah 53; indeed, says Berkovits, the Christian appropriation of this chapter “has been one of the saddest spiritual embezzlements in human history” (page 126).
There have to be limits to mip’nei hata’einu. In a broad sense it is valid to say that the sins of the age wreak evil beyond anyone’s imagining, and the whole of civilization is guilty if even one individual suffers unjustly, but that is no balm for the pain that befalls the innocent victim.
On this theological dilemma the jury is still out. Berkovits knows that in the meantime the problem of undeserved suffering has both endorsed continued faith and led to “holy loss of faith.” We are not responsible for everything.
But we can certainly say with the Selichot that we should not omit for to blame ourselves for whatever we do happen to be guilty of.
The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.