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    Self-scrutiny in the Selichot

    September 1st, 2015

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 1 September, 2015.

    SelichotThere were periods and places which really felt this time of year to be Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe.

    The sound of the shofar every weekday of Ellul sent shivers through people’s very being. So fearful were they that they might not repent in time that some would even observe a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast of speech,” and hardly speak a word to anyone during Ellul.

    Into this pattern the Selichot, the prayers for forgiveness, fitted so naturally that if they had not existed it would have been necessary to invent them.

    The name Selichot recalls the Psalmist’s words, Ki imm’cha has’lichah – “For with You is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4), a phrase with a rather more colloquial meaning in modern Hebrew.

    Not that Selichot were limited to Ellul and Tishrei. In Mishnaic times, prayers for forgiveness were recited on fast days in time of drought (Ta’anit 2). Eventually they formed part of the services on all days of intercession. They reflected a belief that suffering is caused by sin and that repentance and confession avert the evil decree.

    The Selichot we recite these days at this time of year are relatively recent in origin, like other well-entrenched practices which are not really as historic as most people think. Search, for instance, for the sources of Simchat Torah, Tu BiShvat, Yizkor, Yahrzeit and even Bar-Mitzvah, and you find that in spite of their popularity they lack ancient lineage.

    The development of Selichot arose out of the spiritual needs of the Jewish people. The atmosphere surrounding us late at night and early in the morning had such an emotional flavor that people would have wanted to pray then even if the formal Selichot had never been created.

    Midnight was an obvious time for prayer. It was already hallowed for its tearful Tikkun Chatzot, a form of supplicatory service bewailing the destruction of the Temple.

    In some places the first Selichot are said with intricate musical passion at or near midnight, with the Selichot on the other days taking place b’ashmoret haboker – “at the beginning of dawn”. There are arguments in favor of each option.

    The excitement of the midnight gathering is palpable.

    I well remember as a student in London in the late 1950s how the crowds would gather at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street for the midnight Selichot conducted by Cantor Simon Hass (the wags called the gathering Midnight Hass), though the spirituality was sometimes compromised by the theatrics of the occasion, and many of the attendees had come straight from an opera, play or concert.

    When my pulpit career began, first at the Bayswater and then the Hampstead Synagogue, we preferred the early morning Selichot that had a solemn exhilaration that tugged at the heart. Actually the halachic writers themselves were devotees of the ashmoret haboker time slot.

    The passages that made up the Selichot were at first simple and uncomplicated – biblical verses and short invocations of mercy. God’s 13 Attributes were constantly repeated. Piyyutim or poetical compositions enriched and embellished the service. These fall into four groups – Tochachot (admonitions), Akedot (reflections on the Binding of Isaac), Techinnot (Supplications) and Bakkashot (petitions).

    The piyyutim are intricate interweavings of phrases and ideas from Tanach, Talmud and Midrash, often requiring considerable learning to discern their real content. But what moves most people is not their intellectual and literary dimension but their rhyme, rhythm and emotional fervor. The result is that in terms of emotion and spirituality the Selichot are one of our most successful liturgical innovations.

    Those who say Selichot would agree with Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who said, “If I had the choice, I would rather remain alive and never die. For in the world to come there are no Days of Awe. And what can any soul do without Days of Awe?”

    It must be said that the Selichot confront us with a theological dilemma. Their theme is, “We have sinned, You have punished us, please forgive us!” The first and last clause are unexceptionable. Human beings do sin – not because they are bound to, as in the classical Christian doctrine of Original Sin with its notion that after Adam and Eve, every human being is born tainted – but because so often they misjudge themselves and their situation, and their actions trip and tumble. In that context the heartfelt cry, “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us absolution,” is totally pertinent.

    The problem comes with the mip’nei chata’einu theory – “we suffer because of our sins.” In one sense it is valid. So often we bring disaster upon our own heads, and if posterity clones our bad habits, God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” But disaster is not always our own fault. Eliezer Berkovits is blunt: anyone who claims that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is our own fault is nothing less than obscene.

    But the mantra is repeated whenever something goes wrong. Someone died in an air crash, we are told, because they did not keep Shabbat. A family disintegrated, because their mezuzot were not kosher. You can multiply the examples. Every time there is a catastrophe we’re assured it must be God punishing us – floods, fires, tsunamis, whatever.

    Out of the woodwork automatically come the self-appointed, self-opinionated Divine policemen and soothsayers who are sure they can read the Heavenly mind. I feel rather sorry for God with all the clever friends He has. They all know precisely whom to blame for everything.

    It’s so easy to judge other people (though harder to judge oneself). It’s certainly easy to blame God.

    Most of us would rather tone down the shrillness and to say, “God, there must be an answer, but maybe it’s not yet time for You to reveal it.” Berkovits says in his Faith After the Holocaust, “There must be a dimension beyond history in which all suffering finds its redemption through God” (page 136). Within history the people of Israel are the suffering servant of Isaiah 53; indeed, says Berkovits, the Christian appropriation of this chapter “has been one of the saddest spiritual embezzlements in human history” (page 126).

    There have to be limits to mip’nei chata’einu. In a broad sense it is valid to say that the sins of the age wreak evil beyond anyone’s imagining, and the whole of civilization is guilty if even one individual suffers unjustly, but that is no balm for the pain that befalls the innocent victim.

    On this theological dilemma the jury is still out. Berkovits knows that in the meantime the problem of undeserved suffering has both endorsed continued faith and led to “holy loss of faith.” We are not responsible for everything.

    But we can certainly say with the Selichot that we should not omit to blame ourselves for whatever we do happen to be guilty of.


    The other side to Rosh HaShanah

    August 29th, 2015

    apple honeyIn olden days education was said to be the 3 Rs – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Rosh HaShanah, in contrast, is the 3 Ss – solemn, serious and sacred. The very air of the day is rarefied. It’s obvious it is not a day for frivolity.

    True, it all washes over some of those who come to shule for their annual lip service to Judaism, and all they can find to do is to bother their shule neighbours with the 3 W’s – “When is the service going to finish?”, “What is she wearing that dress for?”, “Why did you buy those shares?”

    Yet there is a legitimate argument for humour on Rosh HaShanah, as any rabbi with as long a career in shule business as mine can attest.

    Take the year when I preached about Jewish demography. The theme was the Torah readings and haftarot of the festival. All focus on children – in particular, our Biblical ancestors’ desperate longing for continuity. I applied the thought to the contemporary Jewish scene. Jews are a vanishing species, I said, and if Judaism is to survive, Jews must have more children – at least four per family.

    After I ended I saw a congregant (call him Sam) stand up and signal to his wife, after which both left the synagogue. Later I asked him, “Sam, what was that all about?” Answer: “I was signalling, ‘You heard what the rabbi said: more children per family. We’ve got work to do!'”

    Or the year when I was Ba’al Shacharit and there was no sign of the chazan. Shacharit took its course and there was still no chazan. I’m no singer and never was. The mere thought that I might have to conduct the rest of the service with the choir!

    I began “Avinu Malkenu, chatanu l’fanecha”. The president came up to me: “What shall we do?” I went on, “Avinu Malkenu, ein lanu melech ella attah!” Said the president, “Can you play for time?” “Avinu Malkenu, aseh immanu l’ma’an sh’mecha!… I’ll pray for time!” “If he doesn’t turn up, how will we manage?” asked the president. “Avinu Malkenu, chaddesh alenu shanah tovah! Send me the choirmaster!” Between lines of Avinu Malkenu we worked out an ad-hoc program, with the choir doing the main singing parts.

    I began Ein kamocha with trepidation. I never davened with such a shaking heart. In the end the chazan came in during the haftarah. He had felt unwell and made a detour to the local hospital. He did daven beautifully but it took me years to get over the shock.

    In my early days I was also the Ba’al T’ki’ah. There is a folk tradition that when the shofar just won’t co-operate one says, Satan m’kat’reg – “The Adversary has got into it!” On one occasion I barely managed with the notes. A voice from the congregation was heard, “Sho far sho good!”

    I can tell you stories about Tashlich as well, but Rosh HaShanah services shouldn’t go on too long and neither should Rosh HaShanah articles. So a final comment. In any shule where I was the rabbi they saved a little money on Rosh HaShanah. For their apple and honey they only had to pay for the honey (in another shule where the rabbi’s name was Honig it was the apple they had to pay for!)… Shanah Tovah!


    Rosh Chodesh Tishri – Ask the Rabbi

    August 29th, 2015

    Q. We announce every Rosh Chodesh the Shabbat before. Why not Rosh Chodesh Tishri?

    tishreiA. It is not necessary, because Rosh Chodesh Tishri is also Rosh HaShanah, the approach of which is seen all around us.

    The other months are different, since, in the early stages of our history, people were unsure about dates without an announcement. Even in our own age, with all our technological media, we sometimes wonder what the date is and have to ask a computer or cell phone.

    Jewish life and observance depend on knowing the Hebrew date. Announcing the month is a religious duty. Chapter 12 of Sh’mot tells us, “This month (Nisan) shall be for you the first of the months”; Rambam states that this indicates an obligation to announce the months (Hil. Kiddush HaChodesh 1).

    Originally the determination of when the month began depended on eye-witness testimony before the Sanhedrin, but later it was governed by cheshbon (calendrical calculation).

    The wording of the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, asking God to give us a good month, is based on a personal prayer of Rav (Ber. 16b), rewritten in the plural.

    The importance of Rosh Chodesh is connected with the phases of the moon. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, so does Jewish history. A person’s spiritual life also goes through stages, oscillating between greater and lesser faith. This doctrine of movement shows us how important it is to take the long view of history and not to be too impressed (or frightened) by the emotion of the moment.

    As well as the above explanation, some say that not announcing Rosh Chodesh Tishri is in order to confuse the Adversary, who, if he/it does not know when Rosh HaShanah will be, cannot harm the Jewish people. This theory is well known but has its obvious drawbacks and defects.


    When do you arrive? – Ki Tavo

    August 29th, 2015

    welcomeMany years ago I accepted a position in Australia and resigned from my then congregation at Hampstead in north-west London. Someone expressed surprise that I was going, and said, “Hampstead is a place of arrival, not departure!”

    He meant that when a rabbi got a job at Hampstead he had arrived and generally stayed for ever or at least for a lengthy period. It’s true: Hampstead really was a place of arrival. (When I went there someone else commented in the Jewish Chronicle, “an apple has got a plum job”.)

    These thoughts are relevant to today’s sidra, which says, “When you come to the Land…” (Deut. 26:1-2) – i.e. “When you have arrived…”

    How do you know you have really arrived in Israel? The first year you complain about the Aliyah officials in your country of origin who misled you, the next year you complain about the Ministry of Absorption officials who advised you badly, the next year you complain about the Treasury, which didn’t give you enough perks… and eventually you complain about a later wave of immigrants, who got a better deal that you did, and when this is where you find yourself, it means you’ve arrived.

    Arrival means that you feel at home. The place is yours, the people are yours, the way of life is yours. You’ve arrived!

    The Torah knows all of this, but it adds a further stage. When have you arrived? When you speak about it (“I have come to the Land which God promised!”) and you willingly accept your share of social responsibility (you offer your first fruits to the Land and its destiny).


    No great fun – Ki Tavo

    August 29th, 2015

    happiness happy smileWhat a terrible list of threats in the Tochechah, the warning of doom, that we read in this week’s portion!

    Nakedness, hunger, poverty and subjugation are no great pleasure. These and other horrible experiences are predicted in the relentless series of curses. True to Biblical theology, they all come as punishment for not serving God (Deut. 28:47).

    But there is something new and unexpected – not just that we didn’t serve God, but we didn’t serve Him joyfully.

    It doesn’t mean that we joyfully rebelled against Him or defied Him with glee, but we failed to serve Him with joy. What God wants of us is not only to serve Him, but to serve Him happily – not merely routine, perfunctory service, but getting pleasure from observing His will, finding fun in faith.

    Pinhas Peli points out that man is capable both of making God happy and of making Him sad (Gen. 6:5-6). Not what we would have expected – a God who feels emotion, who has times of joy and times of sadness. Speaking about Him in human terms is metaphor, it’s poetry. It uses human language not because it is really the truth but because it helps us to understand things from our limited human perspective. It helps us to see the message.

    We can’t simply turn on a switch and become instantly happy, but if we look at whatever mitzvah lies in front of us and find an aspect that makes us feel good, we make God feel good too.