For Sephardim this began over thirty days ago, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, For Ashkenazim, we started a week before Rosh Hashanah.
So what are Selichot? Well, the name itself means ‘forgiveness’ and therefore you would think that the content of the prayers are about asking Hashem to forgive us – and you would be partly correct.
Selichot are split into three areas. First, we start with Ashrei, Lecha Hashem and ShomeaTefilah. The vast majority of these three prayers are quotes from Tenach.
Then comes the second and longest part of Selichot, the recitation of the Piyutim, which are the actual Selichot, which are introduced each time by the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy of Hashem. This section concludes with Shema Koleinu.
The final part of the service is individual prayer containing the Al Cheit’s that we will say on Yom Kippur.
The Piyutim themselves are beautifully written, and many times in complicated and poetic Hebrew.
They basically cover two themes.
Firstly, on an individual level how we have fallen
‘We are embarrassed, ashamed to lift up our head, for we have caused our sweet scent to sour, we have spoiled straight paths and perverted the Torah.’
These type of piyyutim normally end with a prayer for Hashem to bring us back, for us to do Teshuva.
‘Accept us favourably and make pardon accessible, may You judge us with compassion for we are Your children in whom you take pride, who are taken to You as Your beloved people.’
The second type seems to focus on the national picture:
‘Our cities have been made desolate, our enemies enter our gates’ ‘They have banished your people from Your inheritance, they seek to destroy Israel day by day, gathering taxes and booty, making Your poor people yet more destitute.’
They talk about the hope and prayer of return, to bring us back to the Land of Israel.
‘In your great mercy rebuild and establish the ruined places. O Lord hear her supplication, shield them in the shadow of Your hand and bring us back to Zion with song.’
Most of the piyyutim were composed by giants such as Rav Amram Gaon (821-875), Solomon Ibn Gabriol (1021- 1056), Elijah ben Shemayah (c1160). They were all composed during difficult times for the Jewish people, whether dealing with horrific anti semitism in Europe, the end of the Geonic era in Bavel and of course the separation of our people from the land of Israel.
Reading these Selichot in the present era engenders in me a different emotion, one of appreciation of the breath of Jewish History and the remarkable story of our rebirth in modern times. I also feel a tremendous sense of gratitude. One may say that is not the emotion to have during Selichot. One should feel bereft, penitent and sombre.
However, I believe gratitude to Hashem is the perfect response to Selichot.
To read the Selichot and to know what we endured for 1000’s of years and to marvel that the prayers of the paytanim were answered! Hashem did bring us back. Yes, as I have said many times, we have not rebuilt the Bet Hamikdash or welcomed the Geulah Sheleimah but the sounds of Torah are emanating from Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh, the existence of the third commonwealth is a wonderful sign of the renaissance of our nation, in our time. Hakarat Hatov to Hashem is for sure called for.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva.
It is so called due to the beginning of the Haftara from Hoshea read tomorrow.
Return (Shuvu), O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.
As we can see there are two types of return. A return to Hashem, our personal journey. As well as a return to Israel – our national journey.
One of the sad realities of today, is that as a Jewish people, we have never had it so good, yet never have more Jews been drifting away. As Rabbi Sacks ztl said in his induction in 1991.
‘This is a rare and special moment in the history of the Jewish people. Only twice before in our long life as a people have we had the chance to practise Judaism in freedom and against the background of a sovereign State of Israel. For two thousand years we prayed for it to come again, and now that it has, we must not fail the challenge of this et ratzon, this window of opportunity.’
Let us hope that this Shabbat Shuva and this Yom Kippur we all realise the ‘et ratzon’ the gifts that Hashem has given us individually and as a people.
Despite all the problems swirling around the world at the moment, let us focus our minds and our hearts to return to Hashem with Teshuva Sheleimah – complete repentance.
And in return, may Hashem give to us as a nation and a world the Geulah Sheleimah.