September 25, 2012

Selichot in Jerusalem

Heavy, somber, hushed, introspective. These are the words I would use to describe the prayers that are recited every morning by the Ashkenazim starting before Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. (The Sephardim say Selichot a few weeks earlier, starting on Rosh Chodesh Elul.) The Selichot prayers ask for forgiveness on a community and national level. 

Rav Ovadia, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, called on everyone to come to the Kotel and pray together. Some 250,000 people flocked from all over Israel to stand together and pray in unison facing the Kotel, the place where every Jew’s prayer is directed. 

250,000 people gathered in the Western Wall Plaza

Sunday night, I was at the spot where all prayers are focused: the Western Wall. I have visited the Western Wall many times over the years. I have leaned against the Kotel’s warm, shiny stones on a summer’s day, squinting into my prayer book as the sun beat atop my shoulders. I have been there at sunrise as the first rays tumble over the ancient wall and I have gazed up at sunset, when the stones are softened, bathed in a golden hue.

And I have been there late at night on a few special occasions; on Yom Yerushlayim, when thousands of people gather to celebrate, waving flags, dancing through the narrow streets to the main square, singing and praying; and on Tisha B’Av where people sit on blankets and cry, reciting the mournful words of Eichah in hushed tones.

I expected a similar mood last night when I arrived for the recitation of selichot. These are the last days of the Aseret Yamim, the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is known to be the time when Hashem is closest to us, most accessible to us and to our prayers. These are the days when people look inside and evaluate themselves, ask forgiveness from others and prepare to make amends for the new year. These days are spent in reflection and preparation for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Last night, as I walked towards the Old City Walls, I passed by bus upon bus releasing passengers who were swallowed into the surging crowd.  Outside Jaffa Gate, young boys stood yelling “Caparot.” On their table sat a few exhausted chickens, their feathers ruffled, their eyes sunken from a hard days’ work. How many sins have they absorbed after being thrust into the air and swung around all day long? A table with a large silver samovar offered steaming cinnamon-scented tea on the cool autumn night. The draped lights of Mamilla were twinkling, bright and festive, the stores all open, the cafes filled, the streets bursting with tourists and teens, yeshivah students and young couples.

I entered Jaffa Gate and was gathered into a throng, a pulse, a wave that swept me along with small school children, teachers trying to gather their small ducklings close by. A group of teenagers in jeans and T-shirts sat on the ancient stones of the Old City and strummed their guitars. This is what they sang.

Kabel rinat amcha sagveinu,
tahareinu nora

Accept your people's song, 
elevate and purify us

It was well past midnight and the crowd gathered in intensity. There was laughing as friends walked arm in arm. There was devotion as people hurried towards the Kotel, their prayer books tightly held in their arms. And there was unity. 

We passed the Cardo, the wide avenue built by Hadrian 2,000 years ago after the Romans conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, meticulously overturning each stone and murdering every Jew they could find.  The Cardo was a place where the surviving Jews were strictly forbidden to enter and were beheaded on the spot if found. Today the Cardo is an archeological site sitting in silence as we hurry past.  

We walked by a thick wall that was built in the time of King Hezekaya, each stone painstakingly placed  701 BCE by terrified Jews who were trying to protect themselves against the attacking Assyrian army. Today a playground sits beside these old ruins where children gleefully fly down bright blue and yellow plastic slides.

These enemies are gone and new enemies are back. We all know about the threats from Iran, the rockets aimed at us from Lebanon and the world that sits silently and allows a tyrant to speak openly of our destruction at an international institution for peace.

We stood on a roof top to view the prayers below. The crowd was still growing. Jews young and old were mouthing ancient words, standing in freedom, asking forgiveness for all.

The words sung in the Rova by that group of teenagers still ring sweetly in my ears:

Ana becho'ach, 
g'dulat yemincha,
tatir tz'rura

Kabel rinat amcha sagveinu,
tahareinu nora

We beg thee 
with the strength and greatness of thy right arm-
Untangle our knotted fate.

Accept your people's song, 
elevate and purify us.

May we stay strong and united, may our actions and words be kind and may our prayers be intense and meaningful.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are always welcome.