Usually when I sit in synagogue, I am busy picking Cheerios off the floor, silently mediating between my twins who are fighting over puzzle pieces at my feet, or trying to silence my baby with a pacifier. Only rarely do I manage to actually open the prayer book and concentrate on the service, which makes the High Holidays an especially difficult spiritual challenge.
But this year is different, because I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services, reclaiming my spirituality in the wee hours.
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 High Holiday services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in synagogue.
But now, with three kids under the age of 4, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the climax of my High Holiday prayers.
To some extent, this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 11:30 p.m., after 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 11:30 p.m. I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the 20-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 kids vying for space on my lap. Even praying at home is difficult—last year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30 a.m. service while I prayed at home, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the 2-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 13 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—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 pee-pee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger.
The words of the Selichot service resonate in new ways as a mother of young children. In the prayer Aneinu, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times I am tempted to ignore my kids when they wake up crying in the middle of the night, hoping that if I stuff my pillow over my head, they’ll learn to soothe themselves. I remind myself of the line in that prayer where we appeal to God, “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” and 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 those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk.” 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. In the Talmud, the sound of the shofar is compared to the sound of a 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 wail I hear.