Parshat Nitzavim–Vayeilech, Selichot (5770)

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At midnight after Shabbat this week we gather in shul for the first of the annual selichot (penitential) prayers. Slowly the somberatmosphere builds as we realise that Rosh Hashana is now just five days away, and the time has come for us to focus on the High Holidays.

Traditionally, on this first night of selichot the synagogues would be filled to capacity, as the imminence of Rosh Hashana became more and more tangible. In the shtetls and towns each shul used to have a shammas who would walk the silent streets knocking on houses and rousing the inhabitants for prayer. The dark streets were soon filled with throngs of people, all heading quietly to their place of worship.

I read an article about the shammas in the Remuh shul in the city of Krakow. In particular the haunting chant he used as he passed late at night through the streets of the ancient ghetto, knocking on the wooden shutters and waking the Jews for the annual selichot prayers.Yidelekh, yidelekh,” he would sing, “tayere kushere yidelekh, shtayt oyf, shtayt oyf tz’avoydes Haboyre un tzi slikhes.” Jews, Jews, dear, kosher Jews, please rise, please rise to worship the Creator and to pray selichot.

Possibly we no longer feel the need to pray, or perhaps we no longer sin, but whatever the reason may be, the effect is that less and less attend this important service year after year.  Perhaps the reason is that we simply no longer understand the meaning of the prayers, and feel it is hypocritical or simply a waste of time to attend without much participation.

To which the answer lies in the following story: One Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the “Baal Shem Tov” was praying together with his students in a small Polish village. Through his spiritual vision, the holy Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, and he and his students were trying with all the sincerity they could muster to cry out to G-d and implore Him to rescind these decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.

This deep feeling took hold of all the inhabitants of the village and everyone opened their heart in deep-felt prayer.

Among the inhabitants of the village was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read or even follow from the siddur; indeed, he could just barely read the letters of the alef-beit, the Hebrew alphabet. As the intensity of feeling in the synagogue began to mount, he decided that he also wanted to pray. But he did not know how. He could not read the words of the prayer book or mimic the prayers of the other congregants.

So, he opened the prayer book to the first page and began to recite the letters: alefbetvet – reading the entire alphabet. Then he called out: “Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, this is as much as I know how to do. You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, help me arrange the letters to form the correct prayers.”

This simple, genuine prayer resounded powerfully within the Heavenly Court and G·d rescinded the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune.

So, this year please make the effort to attend the Selichot prayers, for – whether you can follow the prayers or not – your presence in shul and your personal prayer to G-d is something special in and of itself.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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