And Rejoice with Trembling: Reflections on ‘Carlebach Selichos’

If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, it is likely that you have seen a few of the videos circling the internet of the various “Carlebach” selichos events that took place in communities all over the world last night with full musical accompaniment and punctuated by dancing reminiscent of a wedding or other joyous occasions. Over the past couple of years, these kinds of events have become exceedingly popular and are attended by a wide spectrum of Jews from the Orthodox “mainstream”.

In addition to having seen clips of the various events, I had the opportunity to taste the experience live at a well-attended Carlebach selichos in Givat Hamivtar, led by a phenomenal chazzan who was joined by incredible musicians, all close friends of mine. It began at 11:45 and went until around 4 in the morning.

While there are those who watch videos of these selichos events with tears in their eyes, marveling at the beauty of Jews pouring out their hearts to their Father in heaven in song and dance, there are others whose reaction isn’t as favorable. Many feel that these events are inappropriate. After all, selichos is supposed to be a serious, weighty event, a time of somber introspection, the realization of our distance from Hashem, and admission of guilt. The spirit of joy fostered by ecstatic dancing seems entirely out of place and, indeed, inappropriate if not downright disrespectful. The mood at these events seems to be the very opposite of the one chazal intended. The apparent need for everything in Judaism to be “fun” and “exciting” is indicative of how far we have fallen.

Knowing that, for the past few years, I have tried to attend these musical Selichos events when I can, some friends have reached out and asked me for my take on the matter.

First off, it must be clearly stated that I completely hear where the dissenters are coming from. It is easy for me to understand how, at first glance, these videos can be upsetting to someone who feels that selichos are supposed to look radically different. It does not at all surprise me that there would be those who have a difficult time understanding how singing and dancing is more appropriate by selichos than at a funeral or a similarly somber event.

However, I would like to present a slightly different perspective based upon my own intensely personal experience.

It is midnight. The room is full of Jews who, after a year of struggling against the various yetzer haras of 2018, have returned to shul once again to stand before their Father in heaven and beg for tikkun, reconciliation, and an upcoming year full of a life spent serving Him. The singing begins slowly, to the tune of “Hashiveinu”. I stand in a corner and sway, letting the music serve as a tool to crack open the bolts upon my heart and allow my soul to express herself. We sing the song a few times, slowly. Each time, I feel my Neshama emerging, shaking off the dust and rising to face her Source. Finally, as the song picks up speed, I find my inner voice and the words burst through my consciousness. They passionately express my nothingness before Hashem and the duality of feeling this realization triggers; the joy that accompanies brutal honesty, and the anguish over how difficult it is for me to maintain this honesty throughout day to day life. These two emotions engulf my heart and mind in this moment at midnight. The first gives me wings to fly; “uv’chol zos shimcha lo shachachnu“, “After all we have been through together this year Ribbono Shel Olam, I am yet standing here before You, I have not forgotten the truth”. The second gives me tears to cry. “Oh, how much pain I have caused you, Master of the word! Oh, how little I have accomplished! Oh, how I have talked so grandly to cover for my being so incredibly small.” The song has reached a fever pitch, there is full-out dancing now. I am in a different world, wrapped up in these two emotions. I journey from one to the next, to and fro, back and forth, faster and faster until, in the blur of my Neshama’s running and returning, they merge as one. My feet begin to dance as my soul cries.

“V’gilu b’r’ada“, “And rejoice with trembling.”

The chazzan begins selichos with the age-old tune. “Like paupers, we knock at Your door. We knock at Your door, Mericful One, please don’t allow us to return emptyhanded from before You“. The energy in the room is intense, the volume is loud, the emotions fill the air. “We are nothing. We have nothing. We are disgusted with our egos. We pretend to be what we are not, what we will never be. All we truly want is to be close to You.”

Soon, we reach the 13 Traits of Mercy. We read about how Hashem is infinitely patient, how His right Hand is always outstretched to receive those who turn to Him with truth. Again, the tune is slow, the weeping violin aids the yearning I feel, so intense, more intense than anything I have ever felt, to return, to renew, to climb these walls, to burst through the ceiling of the physical smokescreen and nestle in Hashem’s loving embrace. As the tempo picks up, I find myself dancing once more – this time a dance of trust weighed with the heaviness of my yearning. Again, I bounce back and forth between these two worlds of spirit. They result in a  mighty storm of defiance that fills the entirety of my being – defiance in the face of the forces that scream that there is no longer hope for me, “Ein yeshuasa lo b’Elokim selah“. “No!” My mind screams. “Yemincha peshuta l’kabel shavim! Teshuva is real! I won’t listen to what you say! Though you have cast me down, I won’t allow you to slay me with your sword of despair! I will dance to the melody of Hashem’s Patience and Mercy, I will dance the dance of my eternal Jewishness that will never be extinguished.”

The musicians play the tune again and again, faster and faster. The crowd is immersed in the music, in the moment, a moving mass of spirit returning to Source. And they dance, these Jews. They dance the dance of the journey between brokenness and defiance.

The night continues and the emotions deepen. Each piyut broadens these themes, each melody serves as a vehicle for the soul to ride the waves of emotion they hold. Every word is so real, so intense. To these souls with eyes clenched shut, there is nothing but this moment, this moment of awakening as the world sleeps, this moment in which it is possible to stand before Hashem in total honesty, embarrassed before His grandeur, shattered by our appearance, and yet yearning for His touch, full of hope and confidence that He will indeed fulfill His promises.

And the journey continues.

Although it is easy to write these events off as being a “fun” and “exciting” alternative for those who find the standard Selichos experience dull or boring, I believe too much in the sensitivity of the Jewish soul to accept this cynical notion. Sure, there is dancing, and it is only natural to associate dancing with fun and joy, but it is important to understand that the depth of the Jewish soul allows for a completely different kind of dancing, a deeper kind of rejoicing. Although we see smiling faces aglow with joy, the extreme holiness of the Jewish neshama behooves us to look beyond the external expression and visit the inner world from which this joy derives. When we combine all the emotions packed into the selichos of the first night; nullification before Hashem, guilt, yearning, trust in His Mercy, readiness to return, and rejoicing in the gift of teshuva, the sum total is a complex joy which lends itself to a special kind of dancing. The wordless singing that continues after the piyutim allows the emotion expressed in the piyut to penetrate the depths of heart and soul. The dancing connects my inner world with that of my brothers and friends with whom I am sharing this moment of emunah, this gift of honesty brokenness and defiant hope.

Can one say that everyone who attends a musical Selichos takes this exact journey? Certainly one cannot. Is clear that there are those who indeed see the dancing as a lighter alternative to the heavy spirit of true remorse and a way to escape the moment and the honesty it holds. It is even possible for me to hear the argument that the risk of Jews losing touch with the seriousness of selichos at these events is greater than the possible benefit. However, in this essay, I have attempted to paint a portrait of my own experience, one I believe I share with the vast majority of our brothers and sisters, in the hope that it will foster greater belief in the depth of the Jewish spirit, and open a door to the understanding that, while it may appear to be a product of fun and “hefkeirus“, the dancing by musical Selichos is of a completely different spirit, laden with complex emotions. Perhaps this essay will enable somebody to be dan l’kaf zechus before immediately jumping to castigate his fellow Jews and relegate their avodas Hashem to pure “kalus rosh“.

I would like to wish my dear readers and all of Am Yisrael a k’siva v’chasima tovah and a sweet new year!

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is the author of Sparks from Berditchov: An Inspirational Guide to Avodas Hashem. His next book, Sunlight of Redemption: An Illuminated Path toward Inner Freedom, will be in stores this coming January. Yaakov lives in Yerushalayim with his wife, Shira, where he studies Torah, writes a bi-weekly column for the Chicago Jewish Home, and produces music.
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