How many years did it take you to realize what was happening in the nusach hatefillah [the prayer liturgy] over the course of Elul and Tishrei? I’ve been at this for more than 20 years now but it was only in the last few years — when my Hebrew got good enough that I was not only no longer breaking my teeth on pronunciation, but was beginning to comprehend even uncommon parts of the liturgy such as selichos and hakofos — that I began to realize these two superficially opposite parts of the prayer service were one and the same thing.
It’s an extraordinary journey we take from the week before Rosh Hashana, when we awake bleary-eyed to push through the penitential prayers of selichos. Actually, for baalei teshuva it’s an extraordinary journey just to figuring the basics of selichos out! I remember as a young pup, being dragged by one of the leaders in kiruv today when he was a kiruv-shul rabbi in Twin Rivers, New Jersey, to the yeshiva in Adelphia, to steamroll the selichos out of those arcane paper pamphlets. Not only was my reading atrocious then, but these obscure paperbacks were positively confusing and compounded the disorientation. I paid my dues and eventually learned my way through the selichos, at least in terms of what goes where and what parts “no one really says,” and for a while I was happy enough to at least be able to do my duty by them.
At the same time I found hakofos, especially the versified encyclopedia of Judaism thrown at us on Hoshana Rabbah, more or less incomprehensible, as I did the services for Yomim Noraim. I spent the first ten — maybe more — years of observance mostly concerned with getting the points on the map right. I realize other, probably more sincere and serious, people have different approaches; they want to understand every word they say before they say it. This can have certain satisfactions, though one of them is not getting the hang of davening or even, realistically, covering as much of the liturgy as one is obligated to. I focused on learning what to say, when, and to pick up the idiosyncracies that cause variation from the what it says even in “dumbed down” English-Hebrew machzorim and compilations which seem to “bulk up” on obscure additions to the service in order to justify their existence.
Something happened, however, over time, which not only helped me appreciate the value of navigating this ocean of words, but also made me glad I had chosen fix my position by the stars and not count the drops of water. But, to drench this metaphor completely — and we will flop up onto dry land the rest of our journey — it could only happen, for me, because I kept paddling furiously. Now that meant, for me, a commitment to lifetime learning following a couple of years of full-time yeshiva. Well, if you learn an hour or two a day, using primary materials, and maybe raise a few yeshiva-educated children along the way, guess what? You learn! By which I mean, you learn some stuff — vocabulary, and halacha, and yidios [concepts] in Jewish sensibility and philosophy, not to mention aggadata [non-halachic Talmudical material] and scripture.
I don’t think there’s any other way to do it besides putting in the mileage. I don’t think all the transliterated, linear machzorim in the world will do it for you. I’m not so sure they even get you on the right entrance ramp… but let me not drive us down a dead end. The point: Okay, you put in your miles of learning and davening, and do your maintenance and of course fuel up at regular intervals, and after a while, guess what you figure out one morning before the summer comes up? Well, what do you think selichos is made up of? Those same yidios — those scriptural references – – those halachic and Talmudical allusions! They weren’t just dreamed up by holy medieval poets — they are made from the raw material of Judaism itself!
And guess what else? What do you think the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is made up of? Not only these concepts and words — but of selichos themselves! It’s the same selichos, only sideways! It takes forever to figure out how to say them, where they go, but once you do, why you can recognize them even when they’re dressed in kittels [white robes worn by some men during High Holy Day services]!
And what is most gratifying of all? Realizing, as you put together the words and the concepts and the patterns and the verses themselves — that over the period of a month, those terrifying, intimidating selichos have been transformed — by time, by the subtle change of season, and by the process of Tishrei — into the joyous simcha-songs of hakofos. The pleading recitations of spiritual misery, recited in a crouch with your head bowed down and your fist striking your chest, are — by the magic of teshuva facilitated by the chagim [festivals] and elucidated (brilliantly, really) by the Sages — transformed into a parade of upstanding, proudly-produce-wielding New Men. The very sins elucidated in the selichos become the merits and praise of the hakofos. It’s one magnificent manifestation of that teshuva process we’ve been hearing about since day one. It’s one that takes work, and an investment in one’s own spiritual and intellectual life, to appreciate. Maybe not just work, but time and commitment, too. It took me about two decades to “get it,” and, well, I’m not all that slow on the uptake, you know?
Could this level of appreciation of our tradition, this multifacted weaving of our entire national philosophy into these magical couplets, possibly have an actual spiritual impact?
Well, could it possibly not have one?
That’s what I am going to try to take away from the Elul-Tishrei intersection as I drive into the rest of the year. The longer we stay on the road, the more milestones we pass. Unlike a drive on Route 95, however, we should do more than recognize the similarity of the rest stops every 50 miles — we eventually learn the way. That means knowing where we’re going, and where we’ve been, and yes, of course, how we’re getting there. Which, as they say, is more than half the … dare I say, “fun”? (No, I am not suggesting the arba minim [four species of Succos] as hood ornaments, okay?)
As we say at the end of Hoshana Rabbah, a guten vinter. With sweet memories of my late-summer spiritual travels I’m putting on my spiritual snow tires, and with God’s help — and that of my family and friends and correspondents — I’ll keep it between the lines!