Selichot and Reform Judaism: “I’m Gonna Wait to the Midnight Hour”
By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
When I was growing up at a large Reform temple in Kansas City, a sign of my relative maturity was being allowed to attend the yearly Selichot service. This service was held usually on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah and ended right at midnight. This meant I got to stay up late, which was cool. The best part however was understanding that I was getting a “jump start” on preparing for the Days of Awe. Much later, in rabbinical school, I learned that the traditional custom was quite different. For the whole month before Rosh HaShanah the tradition was to arise early in the morning (i.e., 4 a.m. and recite prayers asking God for forgiveness. Our Reform ancestors knew such a tradition would not be observed so they instituted the late Saturday service instead.
In recent years, many Reform temples (including mine) have found that having an earlier service is more practical. Often the worship is concluded well before midnight. Part of me thinks this a shame in that there is something mystical about midnight. The Psalmist said, “At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You,” (Psalms 119:62). To which we might add, at midnight we rise to ask forgiveness. Why is midnight important? Midnight belongs neither to today nor to tomorrow. It is a moment alone in time. It is an interval with a magic all its own. As we grow weary with the weight of the late hour, we become introspective, concerned with the nature of life, especially our own. I am not sure that happens at 7 p.m.
The late Jewish poet, Ruth Brin, wrote a nice piece, ‘Selihot,’ to fit this mood:
In the darkening shade
lies city street
in deeping shadow
wood and meadow,
and barren and shallow
our thoughts tonight.
Through blackened window
through tight closed door
no wind can wander
no light can enter,
empty our hearts
and fallow and blight.
Now do we ask of You
deep in Your universe
far in Your wanderings,
Maker so merciful,
Open Your cloudbanks
to moon full and bright.
come brushing us,
breath of Your presence
be felt in our souls.
Ruth Brin, Harvest: Collected Poems and Prayers, (Duluth: Holy Cow! Press, 1999), 140.
As the poem reminds us, there is something transitory and therefore fluid about the dead of night. Perhaps change comes best to us in the midst of a murky transition. The process of t’shuvah is not easy or clear. Midnight seems a good time to begin.
At our congregation we also feature during Selichot a musical setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Acquainted with the Night.” I first fell in love with this poem when I would read it in Gates of Prayer. Included are these words:
“And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”
The ambiguity in this poem fits the mood of selichot as well. We are asking a great deal of ourselves. We want to change but that takes the courage of venturing into the unknown. Uncertainty is never easy. Like the walker in the poem, we may feel lost. It is this very feeling however, that can help restore us to our true selves.
I believe that any spiritual practice designed to prepare us for the Days of Awe is a good thing. I do mourn, however, the passing of the late Selichot service. Perhaps it’s time to return to the midnight hour.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Goldberg is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud .