by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

The Selichot are to the High Holydays what a prelude is to beautiful music. Stirring penitential prayers, they are recited from the start of Elul by Sefardic Jews, and from the Saturday night at least four full weekdays before Rosh Hashanah by Ashkenazim. Together with the daily blowing of the shofar they announce the approach of the Days of Awe.

The Selichot service contains beautiful and well-known motifs. The moving proclamation of forgiveness, ‘Lord, Lord, God merciful and gracious, patient and full of loving-kindness’, forms the chorus not just of the Selichot, but of Yom Kippur itself. Even more stirring, especially because of its melody, is the Shema Koleinu: ‘Hear our voice and take pity us… Do not cast us off in our old age or forsake us when our strength fails’. As someone said to me recently, ‘The older I get, the more I mean those words’.

There’s also much in the Selichot which is raced through in silence or simply left out. Yet many of these pieces are deeply impassioned, the outpouring before God of fear and trauma, faith and trust:

Shelter me in the shadow of your hand…Protect the remnant of my exiles wherever they may be. (Isaac ben Samuel of Narbonne, for the fifth day of Selichot) 

The powerful feeling in these prayers made me ask what we’d say today were we frankly to express our troubles, fears and hopes. As a result my community is composing four special meditations which will include pictures, film and contemporary voices, as well as music.

One such ‘prayer’ focusses on the natural world and the urgent need to change our attitude to creation so that we understand ourselves not as apart from, but as a part of, the spiritual and physical ecology of the planet. It will be based on images and sounds from the natural world, and quotations, without the spoken word.

Another meditation will be formed from the narratives of refugees, Jews and non-Jews, forced to flee religious or racial persecution. ‘You have known the soul of the stranger’, says the Torah; we witness constantly how this soul is laid bare to countless miseries. The ‘prayer’ will be a plea, to ourselves as much as to God, to take greater heed.

The third subject, sadly unavoidable, is violence and terror. This is the year of the killings in Paris and Copenhagen. Jews anywhere, alongside those who write and fight for freedom of speech and democracy, have been made targets. So also have countless Christians in the Middle East and defenceless Muslims in Africa and Asia. The meditation will focus not only on the evils perpetrated, but especially on the need for solidarity and courage.

Last but not least we will express our hope for a better world through a prayer for all children, including their wishes in their own words.

Together with reflective music, these meditations will be integrated into our traditional Selichot service. They will set honestly before our conscience and before God the troubles which beset our world and help us resolve to do more to heal these wounds in nature and humanity in the year ahead.

The service will take place on Saturday night, 5 September – 9.30pm. Online booking link: http://bookitbee.com/e/ccwm7

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