Wow! This morning, and I do mean morning, we met at 4 am. We took a bus to a Sephardic (from the word Sepharad which means Spain) synagogue on the French Hill in Jerusalem. This was a first for me. I can't remember experiencing a Sephardic synaogue. The reason why we left so early in the morning is that the Sephardic custom is to have Selichot services between midnight and dawn, when our prayers can be heard by God the best and clearest. Slichot services are all about asking God for forgiveness. These prayers are a complete admission of our guilt and request for forgiveness. Traditionally, these prayers are completed every day for 40 days before Rosh Hashanah. Of course, most Americans are of the Ashkenazic tradition, meaning Slichot are recited later in the afternoon, usually only a week before Rosh Hashanah.
Whatever your tradition, these are very solemn and serious prayers. We are truly begging God for forgiveness, realizing our sins and Mamash ("really", Israelis love this word) doing some serious introspection. This period is when we can realize our mistakes and look for ways to learn from them to not commit them again. We went to an Orthodox shul, which unfortunately meant the women and men were separated. As this was a Sephardic shul, the Bima was in the middle of the congregation, with the Chazan, Cantor, leading the service from behind the Bima, facing the Ark.
This was one of the most special moments for me in my life. The Kavanah (true focus or directedness) of the service was unbelievable. While I wasn't really awake when we first arrived, by the 2nd or 3rd verse of the opening prayer, I was wide awake. The people in this shul had tremendous spirit and kavanah. During the recitation of the confessional part of the service, the man who recited was a very pious man who you could hear sobbing as he confessed for the entire congregation and mamash for the entire congregation of Jews throughout the world. I found myself lost in his words and trying to focus immensely on my own sins and confession.
As a people, Jews are very good at realizing our mistakes and begging for forgiveness. Often times, we joke about our guilt and how good we are at making others feel guilty. But this service points you to your own guilt and causes you to do some serious introspection. This was truly an eye opening service, and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to share this service with my classmates and the congregation at the shul.
Now, I am off to go back to sleep!