For the first time in my life I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services this year. Selichot are penitentiary prayers traditionally recited between midnight and dawn in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. As a child I never went to Selichot because either I was too young to be awake at that hour, or else I was old enough to babysit for parents who were willing to pay me so that they could attend. And as an adult, I shied away from Selichot because I had enough trouble maintaining my focus during the long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in shul. But now, with three kids under the age of four, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the spiritual climax of my high holiday experience.
To some extent this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 10:30pm, once all my kids are blessedly asleep and I’ve had a chance to eat dinner, clean up from the day, and prepare for tomorrow. By 10:30pm I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the twenty-minute walk in the cool evening air. Unlike all the other major services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place either when my kids are awake or else when I need to be putting them to bed, the timing of Selichot means that I can sit in synagogue by myself, without my toddler twins vying for space on my lap while rummaging through my bag in search of lollipops or begging me to read aloud to them from the books I’ve brought to distract them. Even praying at home has become difficult lately—this year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30am service while I davened Shacharit at home with the kids underfoot, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the two-year-old relentlessly tugging at my skirt that yes, Elmo also has a tushie. I can’t do that anymore.
And so now I do most of my soul-searching during Selichot, where the metaphors that dominate the liturgy seem surprisingly resonant. The focal point of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy; we appeal to God’s compassion in the hope that we, too, will be forgiven. God is slow to anger, gracious, and abundant in kindness –He is our king, but also our father, and I would do well to emulate Him as a parent. Lately in our household, bedtime has been extremely trying, and most nights I end up yelling at my twins when they insist, a half hour after their official bedtime, that they need to come out of their cribs to make one more peepee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger. During the Aneinu prayer, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times my kids wake up crying in the middle of the night–itself a theme of Selichot, where we are explicitly enjoined to “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 2:19)–and I am tempted to burrow beneath my pillow and hope they learn to soothe themselves instead of soaking their beds with tears. “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” we plead. I pray that God will be the stronghold of this mother too, and instill in me the strength to rally in the wee hours. “Act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; act for the sake of those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk; act for the sake of the children of Beit Rabban who have never sinned.” And so we petition God to act on behalf of those who are innocent as children – those who are dependent on their parents for their every need, as I know all too well.
The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and also during Selichot—is supposed to resemble a cry or a wail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares it to the wailing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military general who fought against the Israelites in the book of Judges. The sound of the shofar is the sound of the wailing mother, and it is, too, the wailing sound familiar to all mothers. As I sit in synagogue at midnight trying to focus on the words in the prayer book before me, I am grateful that at least at that moment, the sound of the shofar is the only cry I hear.