“Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh.” The sound of a motorboat? No, these are the sounds actually uttered by a man who davened Selichos next to me several years ago. He is not to be confused with the man who uttered “Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh” or the one who blabbered, “Vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh-vuh.” The Artscroll Selichos machzor states: “The days of awe and judgment, of reflection and repentance, are a time when Jews use their prayers to seek the Father Who hovers nearby awaiting their call.” Do these utterances sound like Jews seeking out their Father in heaven?
Millennia ago, Chazal bared their souls to compose the stirring Selichos prayers to provide Jews of all future generations with tools to uplift their hearts so that they can cleave to Hashem during the Yomim Noraim. Their words can inspire us, they can arouse our spirit. But just consider the first two lines of the following triplet, taken from the daily recitation of Selichos: the moving thought expressed through the Artscroll translation and then the words of the Machzor. Then consider the third line which is the actual way many hundreds, if not thousands, of men in our community recite these holy, stirring words.
Expose our hearts to love Your Name.
Mole esl’vawvaynu l’ahava u l’yira es sh’mechaw.
This is the reality. Walk into any Orthodox shul in Bergen County for the pre-Shacharis recitation of Selichos and you will see passionless men emotionally detached from the prayers they are mouthing. And if they do manage to correctly pronounce some words, for the most part they mumble, fumble, skim and skip through these holy prayers. All form and no substance.
Do not forsake us, our Father,
do not cast us off, our Creator.
Al ta’azvaynu awvinu v’al titshaynu bor’aynu.
If a study were conducted by attaching microphones to a random sample of men reciting the daily Selichos prayers, I am certain that the researchers would be appalled by their findings. They would hear many “buh-buh-buh’s,” “vuh-vuh-vuh’s” and “nuh-nuh-nuh”s as well as a variety of mumbling, bumbling, skipping and skimming. They would document hardly any instances of true attachment or devotion. Just like the honest little boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes who declares “but the King isn’t wearing anything!” they would conclude “but they aren’t saying anything!”
But the men who mumble their way through the Selichos prayers are not to be criticized. They are victims. Victims of a system that is broken.
He Who answered all the righteous, the devout, the wholesome, and the upright, may He answer us.
Mi she’ana c’chol ha tzadikim v’ha chassidim v’ha tmimim v’ha yesharim, hu ya’anaynu.
How do we know if something is broken?
When a clock fails to perform its stated purpose of indicating the correct time of day, it is deemed to be broken. It is then taken to a jeweler to be fixed. When a car fails to perform its stated purpose of transporting the driver from point A to point B, it is deemed to be broken. It is then taken to a mechanic to be fixed. When our Selichos davening fails to perform its stated purpose of enabling us to “seek the Father Who hovers nearby,” it should likewise be deemed to be broken. But to whom can it be taken to be fixed? And how can it be fixed?
Is there really a problem?
Whether or not a problem truly exists depends not on the external observation of the men rushing through the Selichos prayers, but on their internal experience. So, ultimately, the answer to “is there really a problem?” must come, as in all grassroots movements, from the people.
Any dedicated and earnest man who religiously gets up early to attend daily Selichos services is entitled to ask:
Am I davening more but connecting to Hashem less?
Do I feel like I am there physically, but not spiritually?
Do I feel that I am merely being “yotzay” another mitzvah, but not engaging with the mitzvah?
Am I tired of being victimized by a system that denies me the ability to be uplifted by the words of Chazal and to bond with Hashem in prayer as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach?
If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then his Selichos are broken. That makes him a victim of a broken system. And to whom should he go? His spiritual jeweler, his religious mechanic—his congregational rabbi? Yes, that is his right as an earnest Jew striving to make his davening real, to really connect with Hashem during this most crucial period of the year.
Is there a solution?
Quality=Minutes/Words. A simple equation. As with any fraction, there are only two ways to increase quality: either increase minutes or decrease words. It’s that simple. Many are dedicated to preserving the Mesorah passed down by Chazal and would protest, saying “but who are we to decrease the words of Chazal?” But haven’t we already deviated from Chazal’s Mesorah by decreasing the kavana and devaykus with which they themselves recited these holy prayers? The holy men of Chazal must be looking down from heaven and, in the words of the ‘60s song, exclaiming, “Look what they’ve done to our song!” (It should be pointed out that Rabbi Larry Rothwachs has taken an important step toward a solution by instituting a “Slow Selichos” minyan at Cong. Beth Aaron, the only one in our community to my knowledge.)
Next year could be better.
This article is being published right around Rosh Hashanah which means that Selichos will be recited the entire week of Aseres Y’may Teshuva. So it’s too late to fix the problem for this year. But it’s the perfect time to start the conversation. Tishrei is a time of introspection. It is entirely in keeping with the theme of Yomim Noraim for everyone who attends daily Selichos services to ask “What am I doing here? What am I really doing?” If enough people approach their rabbis with these concerns and if the rabbis listen with their ears and then open their eyes to the reality that takes place in their shuls, then I am confident that an important step will have been taken. Then, if the esteemed rabbis of our community put their heads together as they consider the quality equation, they can fix our broken Selichos in a way that meets the requirements of halakha as well as the spiritual needs of our community. And then the dedicated, earnest men of our community will be able to embrace the jewels bequeathed to us by Chazal and lift their hearts to Hashem as they say with attachment and devotion:
Mole es l’vawvaynu l’ahava u l’yirah es sh’mechah.
Al ta’azvaynu avinu v’al titshaynu bor’aynu.
Mi she’ana c’chol hatzadikim v’ha chassidim v’hatmimim v’ha yesharim, hu ya’anaynu.
Ira Buckman lives in Teaneck.
By Ira Buckman