By Harriet P. Gross
When I was a youngster, Selichot wasn’t a part of my life. Looking back, I don’t know why. Rosh Hashanah was very important, of course, but its lead-up, a night filled with preparatory prayers, was something I hadn’t even heard of.
My family belonged to a traditional synagogue, but my father was barely involved, and my mother was more dedicated to its social than its religious aspects. I’m sure there were Selichot services, but nobody in my house ever went to them.
In Sunday school, however, I learned that “Prayer, Penitence and Charity Avert the Severe Decree.” There was lots of praying on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even more penitential prayers on the latter, and annual High Holy Days appeals for charitable giving.
I’ve learned much more since then. Tefillah — tshuvah — tzedakah are basic blocks in the building of Jewish life. We talk to God; we talk to people, and ask their forgiveness for any wrongs we may have caused them over an entire year; we help those in need. But we don’t do these things only because they may “avert the severe decree.” We’re all going to face the fall of that final hammer some time, regardless of our behavior; even saints pass away. But until we do get our last call, prayer, penitence and charity enrich our lives.
I first learned about Selichot as a religious service when I belonged to a Reform congregation and sang in its all-volunteer-members choir. For years, my husband and I joined three other couples for an annual “Play and Pray” evening: we had an early dinner together, indulged in a few rubbers of bridge, then walked to our nearby temple for the midnight prayers. I loved the food and the friendship, but the palpable uplift in the sanctuary was best of all.
My son, who’s now a grandfather himself, became bar mitzvah on the Saturday morning before Rosh Hashanah. In the evening, our home was so full of family and friends, busily enjoying each other and reluctant to see such a beautiful day end, that no one noticed when I slipped away a few minutes before midnight to walk to the temple and sing the Selichot prayers with the choir.
It was the last time I was ever able to do so. A few days later, I had devastating surgery: removal of a tumor took away the right parotid gland in my neck and necessitated scraping the facial nerve; my vocal chords were involved, and never recovered from the trauma. But oh, those glorious memories!
Different congregations observe Selichot in different ways, and there are also differences as times change. That’s one of the glories of Judaism — our ability to flex, to adapt, to meet new needs without severing old connections altogether. Now there’s often a lesson of some kind before the praying begins, before the prayers that give Selichot its name are recited; even the midnight recitation that remains a tradition for some has been moved up earlier on the clock for others. But wherever we are, whatever time it is, we are still all Jews together, saying the same prayers, promising the penitence and charity that may — or may not — “avert the severe decree” (which may soon be written into the Book of Life for some of us anyway).
In some synagogues, there’s another beautiful tradition associated with Selichot: before the prayers begin, the Torah scrolls are unburdened of their colorful mantles and redressed in pure white for the season of tefillah, tshuvah, tzedakah that will follow. I leave the service cleansed, at peace, forgetting for a precious moment that there will be many battles of many kinds to fight in the coming New Year.
If you’ve never attended a Selichot service, please think about doing so this coming Saturday evening. All congregations will welcome you — no tickets required — for this most meaningful start to another New Year. Shana Tova to us all!