This Saturday night many Ashkenazi Jews will begin reciting a series of prayers called “Selichot.” Sephardic Jews already started reciting them a few weeks ago at the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul. The tunes are heartfelt, and the music suggests that we are reaching out to G-d from a place of broken-heartedness. The words encompass a theology of forgiveness and atonement, the nature of God, acknowledgement of our personal and communal errors and a plea for forgiveness. They are recited until Rosh Hashanah and then continued during the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The structure of the Selichot offers us a model for working on ourselves and engaging in the process that the Jewish tradition calls Teshuvah. Teshuvah literally means returning. It is a way to collect ourselves, wherever we are, and come back to our task in the world.
The Selichot frame the high holidays — stretching these intensive days of renewal and atonement into weeks. Teshuvah takes time. Some of the things we need to fix in our lives require days, months, years or entire lifetimes to untangle. These weeks of focus allow us the space to begin that work.
Ideally, Selichot are recited in community. There are parts of the liturgy that cannot be recited by an individual. This practice teaches us that Teshuvah is not the work of one person. We need the support of our friends, families and neighbors — and they need support from us. As Rashi explains in his commentary on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) – there are some things that one person cannot even begin that two people can finish.
Returning is not the task of one day or the work of one person. It is the work of time, and the project of a community. This year, may we all find time to reflect on our lives and return to our work in the world. May we find communities that support us in our process of Teshuvah, and may we find it within us to offer our support and presence to our friends, family, neighbors and community members. Together, may we encounter and emulate our God, described in our Selichot prayers as “The LORD, the LORD, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth, extending loving-kindness to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and absolving (the guilty who repent).” *
* Translation from The Koren-Sacks Siddur