Penitence Party

Friday, 31 August, 2018 - 2:43 pm

Tomorrow night we begin to recite Selichot – prayers of penitence. For many this marks the formal “kick-off” of high-holiday season. Often the Shul is already decked out in white instead of the year round colors. We pray with the somber tunes of the high-holidays. The liturgy is of a serious nature evoking feelings of repentance. Tears are shed for the regrets of the past and lost opportunities of the outgoing year, along with the earnest resolve to do better in the year to come. Our custom is to recite the Selichot on Saturday night at 1 AM (technically Sunday). In most places, (around Tulane being a notable exception,) it is quiet; and the only sound being Jewish people somberly hurrying to Shul for Selichot. You see little boys rubbing their eyes in tiredness from being woken up to go to Shul in middle of the night. The prayer books are open, the Chazzan is wrapped in a Talis as he declares in a loud voice the opening words of the service in the special tune. All of this serves to set the tone for the seriousness of the moment.

Yet, what many are not aware of, is that just a short while before Selichot begins, it is the Chabad custom to have a lively farbrengen, during which l’chaim is recited along with singing and words of inspiration. The farbrengen can get so lively that to quote “It is related that in Lubavitch, the Chassidim would farbreng on the nights of Selichot and they would come to the Selichot tottering from the farbrengen’s after-effects.”

So what’s the deal? Is Selichot a somber moment or a light one? How do we balance the lively farbrengen with the tears of regret? How do we justify this kind of seemingly irreverent behavior?

I will attempt to explain briefly. First of all, the two sentiments are not in conflict. It is possible to be both lively and joyous, while at the same recognizing the somber momentousness of the occasion. It is a matter of perspective. If we see Selichot solely as a time for self-improvement so that Hashem will bless us with a new year, then we will take ourselves and our needs very seriously, precluding the possibility of celebration and liveliness leading up to it.

If, however, we see Selichot as the beginning of the period of rededication to what Hashem “needs” us for, then a farbrengen, which elevates us above our self-centered focus, is the best preparation. So what about our needs? If we just worry about what we are needed for, who is going to make sure that we get the blessings that the cow gives milk, the chickens lay eggs, and the crops are plentiful?

According to the Torah, a master must take care of his servant’s needs and an employer must pay his worker so that he takes care of his family’s needs. If we are devoted to Hashem’s “needs” and desires, then Hashem will keep the other end of the bargain and take care of our needs and desires.

As we prepare for Selichot, let us raise a shot glass of L’chaim and sing joyously as we focus our devotion to what we are needed for and consequently Hashem will bless each and every one of us with a year of goodness and sweetness filled with health, prosperity and meaningful growth. May this be the year that we finally take the leap across the finish line into Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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