At the height of his popularity, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) spoke in London to an overflow crowd. The crowd was there, waiting, when Rabbi Heschel walked quickly over to the speaker’s podium and made the following announcement: “My friends, I have just witnessed the most extraordinary event in the history of the world. Just 20 minutes ago!”
The crowd started to buzz: “What happened? 20 minutes ago?” After the buzz died down, Rabbi Heschel explained: “20 minutes ago, I saw the sun set!”
The setting of the sun is really an open miracle that happens every evening, but do any of us even notice it?
For children, everything is new. When my kids were younger and we would drive on the NJ Turnpike, my youngest daughter would start screaming: “Airplane! Airplane!” We responded, of course, with a yawn: “Yes, it’s an airplane sweetie.”
But who really are the chumps here? Is it our children, who are fascinated by the things that we take for granted and consider mundane, or we, who feel like we’ve seen it all?
Regrettably, an inevitable part of life is that we become world-weary. The first time you get the keys to your car, for example, it is as if the world has opened up for you. That sense of freedom is incomparable. Yet, eventually, driving becomes a routine part of daily life.
The same is true with our connection to God. Whether it’s reciting prayers or lighting candles on Friday night, at a certain point everything becomes unremarkable. And when this happens, though we continue to go through the motions, our service of God becomes lacking.
What can we do to awaken ourselves from this dispassion? Fortunately, the sages built a remedy for this into the Jewish calendar.
One of the ways that we prepare for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is through the recitation of communal prayers for Divine forgiveness called Selichot. These prayers are recited beginning at least four days prior to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and said through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Selichot certainly help get us in the mood for Rosh Hashanah, but they are exhausting! They are recited in the middle of the night or early morning and said while standing. Which makes me wonder, why do they have to be recited while standing? As it is, we are staying up late or getting up early to say them, can’t they at least be recited sitting down?
The answer can be found in Psalms 122 which states:
“Our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem!” (Tehillim 122:2)
According to Hassidic tradition, the reference to Jerusalem in this verse, the holiest place in the world, represents Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), which is the holiest day of the year. If Jerusalem stands for Yom Kippur, what, then, is the gateway to Jerusalem? Selichot! Selichot are the beginning, the gateway, to reaching the end goal which is the holiness of Yom Kippur.
How does this work? How are selichot a gateway to Yom Kippur?
The answer is in the first part of the verse: our legs are standing. On a deeper level, this is referring not to our legs, our “ragleinu,” in Hebrew, but rather our “hergelim,” our habits! In order to reach Jerusalem, in order to prepare ourselves for the ultimate goal of Yom Kippur, our habits must stand still!
Selichot act as an entryway into the highest and holiest days of the year because they shake us free from our habits.
Similarly, the Torah portion of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20), read right before Rosh Hashanah, begins with the words: “You are all standing this day before God.” This is the time of year when we must stand still. We must stop and notice sunsets, we must pause for a moment before reciting prayers or lighting Sabbath candles.
Why do we stand during Selichot? What do we do when we are tired and need to wake ourselves up? We stand up! Standing wakes us up. It’s almost impossible to fall asleep while standing. When we stand, we are waking ourselves up physically, psychologically and spiritually as well!
Standing, like the recitation of Selichot in general, is meant to shock our systems, to help us break free of habit and rote. In the words of the legendary Bob Marley: “You better get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!” You can’t lead a revolution from your couch. And in the same way, you can rebel against habit while sitting down!
As we stand in prayer, our legs aching, may we awaken our hearts and minds to experience life, and our relationship with God, with a fresh perspective. And may we merit to walk through the gates of Jerusalem.