Selichot, literally “forgiveness,” is a series of prayers that prepare us for the High Holy Days. In Sefardic and Mizrahi traditions, Selichot prayers are recited for the full month of Elul leading up to Rosh HaShanah. In Ashkenazi traditions, they are recited beginning on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah.
In all traditions, these prayers of forgiveness are intended to help us access compassion – God’s compassion, one another’s compassion, and our own. Our prayers call out: “We trust in Divine Compassion” and “We hope for Divine forgivenesses!”
Even saying these words, I remember that compassion exists and I am worthy of it. And by doing so in a communal prayer space, I know that we all need some help letting ourselves live with and learn from our mistakes and missteps.
In our Jewish calendar, the High Holy Days are a time for heshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting of our lives and actions so that we can continue to live more soulfully. It is only with compassion that we can thoroughly examine the parts of ourselves we might not like, feel ashamed about, or want to change.
Without compassion, specifically self-compassion, a spiritual accounting can easily slide into despair or punishment.
How can you observe Selichot?
Yes, of course, you can go to a Selichot prayer service. Some of them will be online. You can pray the traditional prayers on your own. Hopefully, these prayers will tap into those parts of you that know it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them.
Or you can do whatever helps you access self-compassion.
Write about self-compassion.
Read a book about self-compassion.
Watch a movie that opens your heart.
Listen to music that evokes understanding.
Talk to a close friend, a sponsor, or a mental or spiritual health professional about the parts of you that feel stuck – those are the parts that need compassionate understanding and letting yourself receive compassion by talking about them is an act of self-compassion.
This year, I am going to write about the places in me that need compassion. Then I’m going to a piano concert at the beach with a friend.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, it is said that Selichot opens the gates of heaven for the High Holy Days. This Selichot, do what opens your heart to the gates of heaven.