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.