Serenity on the Road
In addition to our monthly bulletin, our shul sends out a weekly message from the rabbi. I can no longer recall when we started this practice or what precipitated it, but it is now “tradition.” What is also “tradition” is that it is penned (typed, to be more precise) by BossGiraffe unless he is away. No specific reason for that either. Like so many things, we just fell into a pattern. It was suggested that we alternate and we had very good intentions to do just that as we moved into 5769. But you know what they say about good intentions. I fell ill with meningitis and…here we are heading into 5771.
Earlier this week, BossGiraffe said, “Hey, you’ve been doing a lot of good writing about Elul recently. This would be a great week for us to start alternating. Don’t feel as though you need to write something from scratch. Feel free to take one of your recent pieces and adapt it.” Deftly handled, BossGiraffe. Enveloping a request in a compliment. Totally worked.
And reworking something would have been a great approach except that I really wanted the opportunity to invite our folks to the S’lichot observance this Saturday evening (really Sunday morning). It is one of my favourite services of the Yamim Noraim. And that is saying something because I truly love these services. Always have. (That should have been a tip-off, MomGiraffe. Most kids pick Chanukah as their fave holiday, not Yom Kippur.) So start from scratch I did:
To live in Southern California is to spend a lot of time in one’s car. That is particularly true for our family. Between the distance between our home and the shul as well as coordinating the kids’ schedules, a significant portion of my week occurs in the car. Of all the drives I make throughout the year, I have an annual favourite and it is coming up. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a bit after one o’clock ante meridian, I will guide my car onto a nearly-empty street. It is, without a doubt, the calmest and most serene moment of my entire year.
S’lichot. The service itself takes its name from the penitential prayers that are a part of the liturgy of this month of Elul. Sephardic Jews recite them each morning during the month of Elul. In most years, Ashkenazic Jews begin on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. If Rosh Hashanah should fall on a Tuesday or earlier, the recitation of the S’lichot begins on the Sunday morning of the prior week. The custom of holding the first S’lichot service just after midnight on the “Saturday night” is an American accommodation. Recognizing the people’s habit of staying up late on a Saturday night, the service was set at midnight as it is easier for them to attend at that hour than to get up early the next morning.
Several of the liturgical themes of the High Holy Days are introduced at the S’lichot service including the recitation of what is known as the “Thirteen Attributes.” Just after the Golden Calf incident in the book of Exodus, God’s thirteen attributes of mercy were revealed to Moses:
YHWH (1), YHWH (2), merciful (3) and gracious (4) God (5), slow to anger (6) and abounding in kindness (7) and faithfulness (8), keeping kindness for thousands [of generations] (9), forgiving iniquity (10), transgression (11), and sin (12), and granting pardon (13) (Exodus 34:6-7).
Three of these attributes are Names of God. How do they constitute attributes? Different names of God suggest different Divine characteristics. The name El is used when God acts in the capacity of Sovereign of the universe. The four-letter name of God, known as the Tetragrammaton, signifies characteristics of mercy. Why, then, is this name used twice? To show us, as the Talmud explains, that God is merciful both before one sins as well as after one sins.
For many, however, it is the strains of High Holy Day nusach (musical scaffolding) that make S’lichot the powerful preparation that it is. Melodies that have laid dormant for nearly a year are revisited as we prepare to approach God. Exiting the sanctuary in silence, wisps of music accompany me on my drive home. Creating my favourite drive of the year.