Selichot: Body, Soul . . . “Will You Hear My Voice?”
This coming Saturday night in (Ashkenazi) synagogues around the world, congregations gather for the beginning of Selichot, the prayers and poems that inspire and guide us to seek forgiveness. Many of us will spend hours in the coming weeks turning through pages of ancient (and modern) words, hearing melodies and chants that have served so well as the pathway for the journey of the soul.
For many, the ancient words and traditional melodies still speak and sing to us, and in turning to them time and again, we discover new layers of meaning. For others, the traditional pathways of Jewish liturgy are a challenge at best and tedium at worst. In this short essay, I would like to explore one traditional text of Selichot, and one contemporary innovation. For each of these texts, the electronic version will offer several musical settings drawn from a variety of sources and traditions.
Close to the beginning of every Selichot service is a short poem (author unknown) beginning with the words, “Haneshamah lach”:
The soul is Yours, and the body is Your workmanship
Have compassion upon Your labor
The soul is Yours and the body is Yours
Adonai do this for the sake of Your Name!
These ancient words confront the challenge faced by Descartes and so many philosophers. How to chart the connection between the body and the soul? If the soul is eternal and the body is ephemeral, how are they joined? How do they form one entity, a human being created in the divine image? Our poet suggests that the body, no less than the soul, is divinely formed; if at source each person is entirely a creature of God, then we can, with hope, turn to God for help and forgiveness.
Often we wonder if our voices in prayer are heard by God. My teacher in England, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet, presented a radical (mis)reading of the poem Hatishma Koli by the great Israeli poet “Rahel” (Rachel Bluwstein, 1890–1931). This is a love poem born out of some of the sorrows (romantic and health related) of her life, yet Rabbi Magonet reinterprets the text as a plaintive cry to God:
Will You hear my voice, You who are far from me
Will You hear my voice, wherever You are
A voice calling aloud, a voice silently weeping . . .
Perhaps my last day is already drawing near
Drawing close perhaps the tears of parting
I will wait for You till my days flicker out
Like Rahel waiting for the one she loved
Each year at Selichot, I am heartened to recall that my body and soul are living connections with God, and I am haunted by the whispered cry of Rahel: “Will You hear my voice”?
Here is a variety of settings of these texts:
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.