To say that these High Holydays will be different is an understatement. But in a different sense this time of the year was always different.
Once there were people who were truly awestruck by this season with its Selichot. The shofar every weekday sent shivers through their being. So fearful were they about timely repenting that some had a “fast of speech” and hardly said a word during Ellul. If the prayers for forgiveness did not already exist, someone would have had to invent them. Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg 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. What can any soul do without Days of Awe?”
The name Selichot recalls the words, Ki imm’cha haselichah – “For with You is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4). Not that Selichot were limited to Ellul and Tishri. In Mishnaic times, they were recited on fast days in time of drought and on all days of intercession. The theory was that suffering is caused by sin and that the antidote is confession and repentance. The development of Selichot arose out of human spiritual needs. Late night and early morning had such an aura that people would have wanted to pray then even without formal Selichot.
Then came midnight Selichot. I recall London in the late 1950s when the crowds would gather at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street where Cantor Simon Hass conducted what the wags called Midnight Hass. The spirituality was sometimes compromised by the theatrics. I went sometimes, but my preference was for early morning Selichot in the pre-dawn hours.
The Selichot were at first simple Biblical verses and short invocations of mercy. God’s 13 Attributes were constantly recited. Then came poetical compositions – Tochachot (admonitions), Akedot (reflections on the Binding of Isaac), Techinnot (Supplications) and Bakkashot (petitions). The phrases often came from rabbinic literature, but what moved most people was the rhyme, the rhythm and fervor.
The Selichot are difficult theologically. They say, “We have sinned, we deserve punishment!” Human beings do sin – not because they are bound to, as in the Christian doctrine which says everyone is born tainted – but because we often trip and tumble. Sometimes we bring disaster upon our own heads, but we shouldn’t overdo the self-blame. Someone died in an air crash because they did not keep Shabbat… a family split up because their mezuzot were not kosher… God’s self-appointed policemen are sure they can read the Heavenly mind. What all-knowing clever friends God has!
But the emphasis is wrong; it should be on redemption. In “Faith After the Holocaust”, Eliezer Berkovits says, “There must be a dimension beyond history in which all suffering finds its redemption through God” (p. 136). The Selichot should lead us out of the problems towards the solution.
Our age has suffering in the air – some from a virus, some from averot. The averot have wrought evil beyond imagining. Our whole so-called civilisation is guilty of failing to advance beyond it. The Selichot call to God to question and punish the perpetrators of evil – as a first step. They call to mankind with the larger goal of the messianic future where “in Thy presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).