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How to Say Selichot when You Arenít Sorry

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"Son of Man, how can you consider sleep? Rise and call out with cries of repentance.”
These lines from the classic Piyut “Ben Adam” mark the beginning of my prescribed guilt treatment during the month of Elul. As a person who follows the Sephardi Halachic tradition, I am supposed to do Selichot - prayers of repentance - for the entire month leading up to Rosh HaShanah. Emphasize on SUPPOSED… Lets just say my track record isn’t all that great.
You can’t really blame me - the truth is there just really aren’t any Sephardi communities around my current place of residence in Berkeley, California. Being Sephardi is not really a Berkeley thing - the active Judaism in this town is primarily Ashkenazi, even though it can’t be accused of being Ashkenormative. There are no shortage of Mizrachi speakers, bands, culture celebrations, around these parts - the Ashkenazim love the diversity. The only Mizrachi thing missing from these events are some actual Mizrachim in the audience. Even I only count for half.
Without a community of Mizrachim with which to sing the beautiful Piyutim of Ben Adam, Adon Selichot, Anenu, and the nearly innumerable remainder, mustering the motivation to slog through countless pages of contrived remorse is especially difficult. It is during these attempts - praying alone in the living room of the Jewish co-op where I crunch numbers to earn my keep - that I realize the real reason why Selichot are, and always have been, so difficult for me. When the volume is turned all the way down on the Mizrachi meter, progressing gradually from decibel levels near “angry Moroccan” to “excited Moroccan” to “happy Moroccan” and eventually to “half-Moroccan attempting and failing to single-handedly channel the passion of an entire absent community through his voice” - when there’s nobody to pray for forgiveness with me, three weeks before the Ashkenazim decide its important to do so, I realize that its hard for me to profusely apologize to God every morning because I’m not sorry.
Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means a perfect person. I by no means have some superhuman ability to negate all animal aspects of my existence and soar above the rest of my people on a cloud of self-righteous success in adhering to all the Torah’s commands. I am a fallible human being, as all of us are, and am in great need of forgiveness by Hashem. The problem is that I don’t feel sorry enough to ask. Or at least, to ask with the degree of dedication and remorse that the Selichot seem to demand. Even plain old Viduy (a micro-apology session delivered daily after finishing the bulk of the morning and afternoon prayers) feels like too much for me sometimes.
So the common Orthodox Jewish advice at this point, the advice with which I was raised, would be to go vaiter and look deeper within the text, searching for the aspects with which I resonate. Essentially, I would be asked to fake it until I make it - to just get through these prayers, making sure to enunciate each word, and in some way expect the meaningfulness of the experience to soak into my bones ex-post-facto.
However, after 24 years of trying, I’ve reached the conclusion that this method doesn’t work for me. I have spent plenty of time struggling with Tachanun prayers, Selichot retinues and High Holiday parenthetical additions. The problem is not that I don’t understand the feeling in these prayers - the problem is that they don’t reflect my feelings. Indeed, the entire point of many of these prayers is to lament the fact that our sins have removed us from God - how can I be expected to transcend the very symptom of that - my spiritual numbness - in order to seek apology? How can I resensitize my heart to God’s love when the entire reason I need it resensitized is because I’ve been desensitized to sin?! Hashem doesn’t expect anything from us that we don’t have, doesn’t give us any challenge we can’t solve. So does He expect us to apologize when we aren’t sorry? Does God actually expect that reading somebody else’s words of remorse will inspire remorse within my heart of stone?
I don’t know what your answer is, but my answer is - has come to be - no. The Torah says at multiple points that Hashem doesn’t want sacrifices offered with improper intention, that Hashem wants our hearts more than the empty prattling of our lips. For me, Selichot is at best a communal cultural experience, and at worst, an empty prattling of my lips. So my question these last few years has been - how do I truly deliver on a relationship of Teshuva with Hashem? How do I do Selichot through my thoughts and actions, since I so clearly don’t get anything out of doing them with my words?
Paradoxically, my personal Selichot starts with appreciating myself. Rather than enumerating the ways in which I potentially sinned and struggling to create remorse for actions which I clearly didn’t feel that bad about doing at the time, I enumerate the ways that I have succeeded in achieving my goals. I go back through the many successes of my year, the many times when I faced my fears and emerged stronger, the times when I stood at the edge of the Yabbok and wrestled with that angel until the dawn light broke our reverie. The times when I did Mitzvot with a full and loving heart, the times when I felt close to my fellow Jews and humans, the times when I felt indispensable to my Jewish community. And I discover - it is absolutely possible to contrive appreciation. I can absolutely go through my own actions and through doing so, bring to the forefront a feeling of self-efficacy that was previously only lingering in the background of my consciousness.
And then, once I’ve established the good I’ve done during the year, and feel the pride of my achievements - then I have built something which can be demolished and have its foundations redone for a greater rebuilding. I have planted the field which I can burn down with my remorse in order that it grow back with greater strength and resilience. This is the hidden lesson of Selichot. We don’t start from a place of ordinary consciousness and impose guilt upon ourselves. We start from a place of heightened consciousness and thus accentuate the natural feeling of disappointment for the realms of life in which we haven’t displayed that consciousness. We don’t force the feeling - it comes naturally, once we’ve ascended another rung on the ladder of higher consciousness.
But in my opinion, despite tradition’s surface level refrain of despair, the destruction isn’t nearly as important as the building. I recognize that not everyone can see with the eyes of Rabbi Akiva - recognizing that what has been destroyed has been destroyed so that it may be rebuilt with greater strength and established forever. I know that most people, including myself, can’t see that far in the future. Ours is a world of chaos and confusion, of excess stimuli and constant distractions. We’re lucky when we can see to the end of our day, let alone to a distant potential for best-selfhood that still remains abstract.
What we need most in this day and age is the unwritten part of Selichot - the part where we reestablish our self-esteem and focus on the positives in our lives. Where we remind ourselves not of our failures but of our successes, not of our shortcomings but of our talents and unique abilities, and the countless ways in which we used them to help others this last year. Once we’ve pumped ourselves full of positivity, then we can check back in with the liturgy’s refrains of despair and contrition. Once we’ve established fulfillment, we will organically move towards remedying those parts of us which are not yet whole.
. Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
During the High Holidays, in the process of teshuvah, we repent for past sins. I understand that in our (Jewish) view, repentance means that we are sorry for the sins that we have committed, we try to repair the injuries we have caused, we ask forgiveness from God and man, and we resolve to do better in the future. Christianity appears to have a very different idea of what it means to repent and atone for a sin, and how a sin is forgiven. Please explain.
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