My first experience with Selichot occurred during my first year of rabbinical school in Israel.
In the wee hours of the morning, we boarded a bus to a Sephardi synagogue in Jerusalem. The service, in the Sephardi custom, was held before sunrise. Forced to take anti-nausea medication before the bus ride, I remember little of that service, except for the warm, spiced tea that was shared with us during the service. Ever since, though, I have had a fondness for Selichot.
There are a variety of points during the summer that could mark the coming of the High Holidays – Shabbat Nachamu after Tishah b’Av, the full moon of Tu b’Av (a minor Jewish holiday that celebrates love, observed primarily in Israel), the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul – but it is Selichot, more than any other moment in our calendar, that tells me the High Holidays are near.
Typically, Selichot occurs at the close of Shabbat just prior to Rosh HaShanah, but when Rosh HaShanah occurs within close proximity to the Shabbat that precedes it, as it does this year, Selichot is observed a week early.
It seems to me that this adjustment in the timing of Selichot tells us something of its importance. The word “s’lichot” means “forgiveness” or “pardon.” We know it from modern Hebrew in Israel, where s’lichah means, “Excuse me,” (or sometimes, “Out of my way!”). In the context of the High Holidays and the lead-up to them, S’lichot are prayers asking for pardon from God. They first appear at Selichotat the close of Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, but the S’lichot prayers appear throughout Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and even into the remaining fall holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The presence of these prayers before, during, and after the High Holidays are a reminder that the path to forgiveness extends beyond the High Holidays themselves. We are encouraged to begin early, work earnestly, and take a little extra time, if we need it, to remedy whatever went wrong in the year that has drawn to a close.
For me, the key to Selichot is the early start it offers.
In reality, each and every day, no matter the time of year, is the right time to seek forgiveness, but Selichot encourages us to jumpstart our cheshbon hanefesh (the accounting of our souls) that the High Holidays demand of us. Regarding this early start, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in Michael Strassfeld’s The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, shares this teaching:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi said that during Elul the thirteen midot—attributes of mercy—are shining. While this is also true on Yom Kippur, the difference is that during Elul the King is on the road; therefore, you are more comfortable addressing the King if He stops at your house. By Yom Kippur, the King has returned to His palace, and even though the thirteen attributes of mercy are still shining, you feel intimidated in approaching the palace without even knowing how to get past the palace guards.
For many of us, myself included, the spiritual work of the High Holidays can be overwhelming. I often find myself caught off-guard by the liturgy, wondering if I can be better in the year that comes. Selichotoffers us the opportunity to prime the pump, to get our t’shuvah juices flowing before the big day.
I know that’s what I’ll be doing this Selichot; perhaps, you will, too.