Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Selichot Mindset – Part 2

If you are in Jerusalem between now and Yom Kippur, I suggest you go to the Old City one night at around midnight, for selichot.

If you have not done this before, you will probably be shocked by what you see: every single night for 2-3 weeks straight, tens of busses come to Jerusalem bringing literally thousands of Jews from all over the country. They arrive late at night and create major crowds all over the Old City (and also in other neighborhoods, such as Nachlaot) for a modern Israeli tradition known as the “siyur selichot” – the selichot tour.

Groups of teenagers and adults – mostly from the non-observant population – walk through the city’s softly lit stone alleyways talking about God and tradition, about forgiveness and self-improvement. Some of the groups end the evening by actually saying selichot, and others don’t – they simply walk past synagogues or stand in the back of the Kotel plaza, listening to the prayers and feeling connected to the atmosphere. (For those who understand Hebrew and want to know more about this fascinating phenomenon, here are two videos you might want to watch: a 2-minute clip from a Channel 1 television news program about the siyurei selichot, and a 12-minute video documenting an actual group on one of these tours.)

What is it about selichot that can bring tens of thousands of “chilonim” (secular Jews) to Jerusalem each year, just to walk around the streets in the middle of the night? Undoubtedly this is yet another expression of the power of this ancient custom – but I think there is also something else.

Perhaps the biggest myth of contemporary Israeli life is the idea that the majority of the Jews in the country are completely non-religious and uninterested in any connection with God, Torah and Jewish tradition. This is simply false – and the multitudes who pack into the streets of Jerusalem every night for these weeks prove it.

It is true that most Israelis today (like most Jews in the Diaspora as well) do not observe halacha. But that does not mean that they do not feel connected to Jewish tradition, and it doesn’t necessarily even mean that they don’t believe in God or the Torah. The reality is just much more complicated than that. There is a large – and growing – movement of secular and non-observant Israelis expressing an interest in reconnecting with, and reclaiming, their Jewish heritage.

The siyurei selichot are one expression of this desire, but there are others as well, like the Yom Kippur services that have been running for almost ten years now in community centers, for those who don’t feel comfortable in a regular synagogue. And an even more elaborate example is the “secular yeshiva” that was founded in Tel Aviv about six years ago, which recently opened a branch in Jerusalem as well. (The term “secular yeshiva” might seem like an oxymoron, but it is actually exactly what its name implies – it is a place of Torah study, run by and for Jews who are not observant, but want to study Torah anyway.)  It’s important to understand that these are not “outreach programs” organized by Orthodox Jews. Rather, these are programs organized by and for secular Jews who see great significance in their Jewish texts and traditions.

I have heard some Orthodox Jews react to institutions like this with ridicule and even anger.  But I think they are wrong. Our Rabbis (Midrash Eicha Rabba, Petichta; Yerushalmi Chagiga Chapter 1) make a somewhat radical statement, metaphorically phrased as a quote from God Himself: “הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו” – “If only they would abandon Me, but preserve My Torah!”. It seems that the Sages understood that a sincere commitment to studying Torah and connecting with its message is intrinsically valuable, even by those who do not (currently) observe the commandments.

The Torah tells us that together with the Return to our land comes a Return to God (see Devarim Chapter 30, which we read last Shabbat). The siyur selichot is a concrete expression of that Return – even if, at this stage, it isn’t accompanied by full Torah observance.

Kibbutz galuyot, the Ingathering of the Exiles, has created new spiritual opportunities that enable all of us – Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular – to take an ancient practice and develop it in new ways, for an even higher level of self-improvement and connection with Hashem.  Last week, I wrote about one aspect of how selichot in contemporary Israel can give us new opportunities to tap into the power of an ancient custom. The siyurei selichot and all they represent are another.

May we all take full advantage of these opportunities, and may we thus merit to achieve a complete Teshuva and be sealed in the Book of Life.

Muslim Riots and Rosh Hashanah

Last week I wrote about an insight I have learned from saying Selichot in Israel, and promised a second post this week with another thought.   However, I think this week’s events in the Middle East deserve some attention now because they can teach us something for Rosh Hashanah.  So I am writing this piece today instead, and will post my second Selichot piece after the holiday, for the Ten Days of Repentance.   

The Muslim world was in an uproar this week, with riots breaking out in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and, most significantly, in Libya, where the American ambassador and 3 staff members were killed, and Afghanistan, where two US Marines were also killed in an attack on a military base.   As of today, the violence is apparently spreading beyond the Middle East as well, with reports of disturbances in Sydney, Australia as well.  The supposed cause of all of this violence is Muslim “rage” generated by a really stupid movie which might have been made in America, and which depicts Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in a very poor light.

Let’s understand what we just said: because someone who might have been in America made a movie that insulted Islam, thousands of Muslims rioted across the world and killed at least six people.

The absolute immorality of these attacks, and the absurdity of killing innocent people in the name of God, don’t need to be explained.   However, what does deserve some attention is the fact that people could get so angry in the first place.

Reactions in the West ranged from indignation to apology (Hillary Clinton called the video “disgusting” and an abuse of freedom of speech.   When’s the last time anyone reacted that way to a movie insulting Judaism?   They’d have to condemn every Mel Brooks film ever made….)  President Barack Obama even asked YouTube to remove the video in order to calm the rioters (they refused).    The upshot of all this is confusion – Westerners simply don’t understand these protests at all.   They don’t have a clue what could possibly lead people to be so upset by a dumb video.

The reason for this lack of understanding is because genuine religious faith is very rare in Western countries.   Eleven years ago, shortly after the September 11 attacks, I published an article in the Jerusalem Post asking how it was that America’s enemies were able to invade the mightiest nation on earth armed with nothing more than pocket knives.    The conclusion I came to was that the American security forces simply couldn’t understand that people would be willing to give up their lives for something they believed in – so they didn’t take precautions against this type of attack.   At the time, I tried to draw a lesson for Rosh Hashanah from our enemies.

That message is still relevant today.   How many of us are angry, or even genuinely upset, when  someone denigrates things that we supposedly believe in and hold dear?   Perhaps we can learn something from our enemies about devotion to Kiddush Shem Shamayim, the sanctification of God’s Name.  The Muslims got this concept, of course, from the Torah (I’ve recently been learning Sanhedrin 56a with my chavruta [study partner].  This section of the Talmud discusses the details of laws regarding megadef – one who blasphemes or curses God.   The Torah considers this an extremely serious offence, and I have to admit that it is difficult for me to relate to.)   The Muslims have distorted this concept – but many of us have forgotten it completely.

On the other hand, of course, we should all be outraged at the lawlessness and blatant disregard for human life exhibited by these protesters.  The Muslim mobs who are so incensed by what they regard as an affront to kvod Shamayim have completely lost touch with other fundamental principles – justice, peace, liberty and the sanctity of human life.   Those values are the cornerstones of Western culture, and they also come from the Torah.  

Tonight, Jews will stand in Synagogues around the world and beseech Hashem with the following prayer:

ובכן תן פחדך על כל מעשיך ואימתך על כל מה שבראת וייראוך כל המעשים וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם…ובכן צדיקים יראו וישמחו וישרים יעלוזו וחסידים ברינה יגילו ועולתה תקפץ פיה וכל הרשעה כולה כעשן תכלה כי תעביר ממשלת זדון מן הארץ

And thus may You place Your fear over all of Your creations, and Your awe over all that you have created.   Let all works fear You and all creatures bow before You, and let them all create a single society, to fulfil Your will with a complete heart…and thus let the righteous perceive [this] and rejoice, and let the upright exult, and let the pious ones sing with joy, and let evil close its mouth and let all wickedness vanish like smoke, as You remove wicked governments from the earth.

The fulfilment of this vision is largely dependent on us.   If we learn to identify with, articulate and genuinely represent the Torah’s messages, we will be in a better position to lead the world.   We will be able to explain to Muslims and Westerners alike that there is genuine value in holiness and in venerating God’s great Name.   And we will be able to explain to them both that there is also genuine value in respect for freedom, for human rights and dignity.  We will be able to show both sides of this global conflict that the values each of them hold most dear are in fact correct, and that each can learn something from the other instead of fighting.

To the extent that Am Yisrael actually represents the Torah, we will accomplish the leadership role for which we are destined and which is at the core of the concept of Am Levadad Yishkon.  The fulfilment of this mission will lead to the Redemption of the entire world, and the actualization of a different part of that same High Holiday prayer:

ובכן תן כבוד ה’ לעמך תהילה ליראך ותקוה טובה לדורשיך ופתחון פה למיחלים לך שמחה לארצך וששון לעירך וצמיחת קרן לדוד עבדך ועריכת נר לבן ישי משיחך במהרה בימינו…ותמלוך אתה ה’ לבדך על כל מעשיך בהר ציון משכן כבודך ובירושלים עיר קדשך

And thus give honor, Hashem, to Your nation, praise to those who fear You and hope to those who seek You, and encouragement to those who hope to You, happiness to Your land and joy to Your city, flourishing pride to David Your servant and preparation of a lamp for Your messiah, the son of Yishai, speedily in our days.   And may You reign alone, Hashem, over all of Your creations on the mountain of Zion, the seat of Your glory, and in Jerusalem Your holy city.

May it happen speedily in our time.   Shana Tova!

The Selichot Mindset – Part 1

This Saturday night, we Ashkenazim will begin saying selichot [1]. I’ve always seen that as the “opening ceremony” of the High Holiday season – when I stand in shul on the first night of selichot and the chazzan begins by reciting Kaddish in that special tune reserved for this time of year, that’s when I know that Rosh Hashana is shortly upon us.

I have been saying selichot every year since I was a child. But in the decade and a half since I made Aliya, I learned new things about selichot, the experience and its mindset that I was unaware of when I lived in the States. This post is dedicated to one of these insights, and next week I’ll write about a different one.

What I’m speaking about today is the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic selichot. Personally, I had virtually no exposure to Sephardic religious practice when living in America, but of course here in Israel more than 50% of the population are Sephardim, so once you live here you can’t ignore them. And although many areas of Jewish practice take on different flavors among Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the difference in the attitude towards selichot may be more dramatic than just about everything else. So here’s a recommendation for all of my Ashkenazi brothers and sisters: if you have never recited selichot in a Sephardic congregation, then make it your business to do so, at least once. You’ll probably be amazed.

The differences start with the texts themselves, which are organized differently. It’s true that for both groups, the central feature of the selichot is the frequent repetition of the Yod-Gimel Midot shel Rachamim, the Thirteen Attributes of Divine mercy (Shmot 34:6-7). And both groups have piyutim (poetic recitations) that were written at various time periods interspersed between the recitations of the Thirteen Attributes. But that’s where the similarity ends. Ashkenazim, who only say selichot for 2-3 weeks, use different poetic recitations each day, whereas the Sephardim are content to say the exact same text every day for 40 days (with some supplementary parts added during the 10 days of Teshuva).

Another difference has to do with the Shofar. The Sephardim blow the Shofar during selichot, as the Yod-Gimel Midot are recited. It’s an exhilarating thing to hear – while the congregation recites the Thirteen Atributes in unison, the sound of the Shofar rises from the crowd triumphantly, almost like the victory blasts of a conquering army charging in to defeat their enemy. Ashkenazim don’t do it that way. This leads to a very different feeling during our selichot, which sound more contrite than victorious. (Of course, we blow the Shofar in Elul as well, but not during selichot. Instead, we blow it a single time at the end of the morning prayers each day. When the Shofar is sounded this way, in a quiet room without the accompanying voices of the congregation, it also takes on a completely different character. For Ashkenazim, the Shofar becomes God’s announcement to us, calling us to attention [see Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 3:7], as opposed to our own triumphant proclamation like it is for the Sephardim.)

But the most significant difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi selichot is something you can’t see if you study the texts in a library; you need to attend the different services in order to understand what I’m talking about. It’s simply that the mood in the room is fundamentally different. The Ashkenazic service is serious, contrite and in some cases almost mournful. Not so in the Sephardic service – there, one hears uplifting melodies, and experiences a joyous atmosphere. This is true even when singing (in a very happy tune – click the link to see what I mean!) words like חטאנו לפניך, רחם עלינו – We have sinned before You, have mercy on us!

(Although it’s not the same as actually being there, you can see a bit of what I’m talking about by comparing these two videos documenting actual Sephardic and Ashkenazic Selichot services).

How is it possible that the very same ancient custom has become so different between these two branches of our people?

I think this shows us something quite amazing about the Jewish people and our unique history. Thousands of years ago, we were expelled from our land. As we wandered through centuries of exile, we traveled the world and had many different experiences. We lived among different cultures and struggled with different challenges. Wherever we went, we carried our Torah with us, continued to observe its commandments and sacrificed much to maintain our connection with our heritage and our God. We remained true to our traditions and yet, our varied experiences shaped our interpretations of that Torah in different ways. Over time, each community learned to look into the Torah and interpret it from the perspective of their own experiences. The result was that each one saw different aspects of the “seventy faces” of the Torah.

And now, after millennia of wandering the earth, the kibbutz galuyot (Ingathering of the Exiles – see Devarim chapter 30) has begun and we are all coming home. We arrive back here in our homeland, still proudly carrying our Torah with us, and we meet our brothers and sisters who are doing the same. And we have so much to learn from each other! The modern State of Israel gives us the unique opportunity to live together, to talk together and especially to pray together. And that allows us each to learn from one another and to have a much fuller understanding of the infinite truth in the Torah.

Ashkenazi selichot and Sephardic ones seem so different on the surface – and yet in truth, we are both observing the same custom. The paradoxical coexistence of joy and awe is built into the very fabric of the High Holiday season. Sephardim tapped into one aspect of that paradox, and Ashkenazim to another. Now that we can pray with each other, we can each learn from what the other has developed, and all of us can deepen our understanding and observance of the Torah. It’s really amazing.

[1] Selichot are special penitential prayers in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This post-Talmudic practice seems to have begun during the time of the Geonim, around the 8th century or so. Ashkenazim say them beginning on the last Saturday night that is at least four days before Rosh Hashanah – so that will be this coming Saturday night. But our Sephardic brethren have been saying them for several weeks already, since the beginning of the month of Elul. It seems that the original custom was to recite these prayers during the Aseret Ymei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance), but with time the practice was expanded to begin earlier.