9.16.2006

First night of selichot

Tonight, we started reading selichot, the penitential prayers that precede Rosh Hashanah and are recited between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The prayers are interspersed with medieval Hebrew poetry. The poetry (sing. piyut, pl. piyutim) is long and sometimes tongue-twisty and I can never keep up with the congregation, but I always try to think about at least a tiny bit of what I say each day.

I think my favorite bit from the first night of selichot, is from the second piyut (as listed in The Metsuda Selichos). It says:

"Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav."*
"You are good to those who call upon you with all their soul."
"Torchan nisoh u'lichalkeyl yahav."
"You bear their burden and sustain them."
"Yikar chasdecha alai yirhav."
"Expand Your precious kindness upon me."
"Ya'an koli leh-hazin bi'ahav."
"And give ear to my voice with Your love."

I'm just going with the Metsudah Selichos translation even though I think some of the words could be translated more richly or with more nuance.

I think I liked this particular verse of this piyut because I've done more than my usual amount of crying out to God with all my soul lately. I also love the image of a God who bears the burden of those who call out to God with all of their souls. I love that God's kindness is something expansive and expanding. Like, I imagine, a parent's love for a child, it doesn't run out, it just expands to fill the space needed. Finally, I love the idea of a God who listens to our cries--even our bitter, tortured, "Why are you doing this to me, God?" cries, with love. Maybe it seems sort of impossible, that anyone could love my voice sometimes. Certainly, all human beings would find it irritating at times. Hell, I find my voice, my complaints, my neuroses, my irritability, grating at times. But God, God listens with love. I also like the way this was stated, "Give ear to my voice with Your love." God's giving ear to our voices makes them, in a way. If we call out, and there is no God listening with love or with any other emotion, then it's as if we have not cried out at all.

The kindness, love, patience, and goodwill towards humankind expressed in this verse serve as a sort of response to the beginning of this piyut, which sounds like the voice of someone who is nearly crushed by the difficulties of living life (I'll spare you the poor Hebrew transliteration this time):

"The best of men is like a briar-thorn."
"The blameless and pure man has vanished."
"The righteous has been trampled."

Towards the end of the piyut, after the bit I quoted above, the poet writes (echoing Song of Songs): "Your beloved ones knock at your door with a sorrowful voice."

The trajectory of the piyut--its author can no longer reach out to a fellow human, is feeling utterly trampled, his heart is broken and laid open before God, God is almost his last hope or his last resort--is stunning in its emotional vibrance. (Is that sentence total BS worthy only of an undergraduate paper written at 3 am? Perhaps. I guess I still have it in me.)

Part of me feels that it goes a bit too far in the "We suck, now please save us God" tone, but, really, whom among us hasn't felt that way? My favorite part is still the part I quoted at the top, and I think I could almost do without the rest of this piyut. It's the sweetest, happiest part of the piyut, and it describes a God who listens patiently, not the fearful, punishing God whom we tremble before in the rest of the piyut and in others.

I think that "Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav" may sum up one essential reason that I believe in tefillah (prayer).

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* Note that there is no rhyme or reason to my transliteration. In short, it sucks. I will happily insert a better version from anyone for whom this comes naturally. If anyone knows of an electronic version of the Hebrew, all the better!

P.S. I also like "Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav," "You are good to those who call upon you with all their soul" because it reminds me of one of my favorite verses from Psalm 145:
יח קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו-- לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת. 18 The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth.

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