It’s become something of a tradition on Selichot for me to offer some thoughts at this point – it’s like setting up base camp, as it were, in preparation for the expedition ahead of us, that annual adventure into the spiritual and psychological terrain of the Yomim Noraim. I think of it as an opportunity to check the route ahead, discover if we have the right provisions, even if we don’t quite know what provisions we might need, maybe have a look at the maps drawn by those who have gone before us, which might also involve questioning whether their maps will be of any help for us, because our journey, we intuit, may require us to draw our own map rather than relying entirely on the routes that others have taken. What’s our route looking like this year, what provisions do we need, what resources can we draw on? It’s fraught work this expedition, filled with uncertainty, insecurity. At least initially. And none of us are experts. Just willing amateurs, at best. Willing, or unwilling – maybe a bit of both.
And what I’ve often found myself doing over the years is finding a text for this Selichot evening and using it as a springboard, but a text that might not immediately seem an obvious starting place: so (off the top of my head) I have used Waiting for Godot, and King Lear, a few lines of Seamus Heaney, and last year I think it was Alice in Wonderland, whatever text that I find and think might be helpful to get us deeper into the themes of the season. Now I say that ‘I find the texts’ but that isn’t strictly accurate, it’d be more true to say that it often feels that the texts find me. I don’t go looking for good texts to bring you, like a mother bird searching out some juicy worms for her fledglings, but something will come my way, randomly, unexpectedly, unplanned, in the days or weeks leading up to Selichot, and it’ll get me thinking and it won’t let go of me until I’ve done something with it, until I’ve used it as a building block in this frail edifice we call a sermon, this flimsy construction of words in which we shelter for a moment or two here at base camp, before we have to set off on our religious expedition.
And I’m describing my inner process in this way, sharing it with you like this, because I think there might be a clue here to help us as we approach the themes and the work of the High Holy Days – returning, seeking forgiveness, repentance, renewal – all that heavy-duty religious baggage we grapple with over these weeks. Despite appearances to the contrary perhaps, there is some method to this madness of mine, this circuitous approach to seeking out, or being sought out by, sources of inspiration. Something that’s going to make a difference.
You see there’s so many expectations surrounding this period of the year, expectations from community, or family, or the liturgy, or just expectations we put on ourselves, about change and transformation, that the expectations, and the beliefs we have about what we should be doing, or should be feeling, it can all get in the way of just experiencing what happens to us and in us during these weeks. Our prior expectations and beliefs about what we ought be doing, or feeling, or thinking, can block us being open to what actually happens, moment by moment: what happens naturally, we might say. So when I talk about texts ‘finding’ me I’m offering a model that might be helpful in a wider sense: that the things we need (the words, the ideas, the hope, the confidence, the resolve, the ability to forgive ourselves, the ability to forgive others, whatever it is we need) they find us – if we are open to them. So what I’m describing, struggling to describe – because it’s hard to put into words – I’m talking about a stance in relation to the spiritual and religious work of these days. We could describe it as ‘wandering attentiveness’ – even ‘distracted attentiveness’; it’s akin to what Shakespeare described, incomparably, in the words he put in Polonius’s mouth in Hamlet: “By indirections find directions out”.
So, if I had to summarise what I am saying, it’d be something like: ‘What you need to help you on this expedition through the High Holy Days is waiting for you – but you don’t need to work too hard to search for it, or seek it out, because it will arrive, it will come to you – your job, the job of each one of us, is to wait and be open to see it or hear it when it comes, to receive it into our hearts, our souls’. But when I say it like that, it makes it sound almost too easy, or inevitable, too deterministic. So I want to say it tentatively, hesitantly, because, as Franz Kafka understood and described, in our times there is no longer a “broad…smooth road” leading from, or to, Mount Sinai; there are no straight paths to religious revelation, no certainties, no programmes that will automatically get you there, no practices or rituals guaranteed to lead to enlightenment or inner change. There’s no single Jewish text or prayer that will open up a failsafe surefooted pathway to heaven. Though it’s also the case that there’s no single Jewish text or prayer that might not, on one unforeseen occasion, suddenly speak to you in a new, unexpected way, and a word, or a phrase, or an idea can pop out of the text and change the way you think, or feel.
But I know that for many people now, it’s not usually the texts and prayers of tradition that light the way. As Rabbi Lionel Blue helped us understand, what is revealed to us that we need on our own journey through life can come from all sorts of places undreamt of by formal Jewish tradition: it may be a conversation that we overhear in the supermarket, or a headline on a stranger’s paper on the tube, it may be something a grandchild says, or a remark from a neighbour we bump into in the street, it may be an act of kindness we witness that highlights how we’d like to be, or an act of cruelty that we see that reminds us of, maybe shames us about, what we too are capable of, and makes us resolve to live from our better selves. It may be a piece of music we hear that is new to us that we experience like an oasis in the desert, or music that we hear as if for the first time after hearing it a 100 times before. It might be a scene from a film, or a moment in the garden, or letter that arrives, or a sentence from a book that’s been lying around at home and that we decide to pick up and we open it up and there’s a thought or a phrase that penetrates some outer layer of indifference in us, that stirs something in us, that makes us realise something about ourselves – that we are a better person than we judge ourselves to be in our harshest moments, or that we have hurt someone and we need to do something about it, or any one of a thousand small revelations that can piece us, and change us, just a millimetre, but that millimetre is everything. This is teshuvah, the teshuvah of small moments – which are huge.
But the thing is that we can’t search out these unexpected moments of revelation in everyday life: they find us, they arrive, they are for us, it can even feel that they are aimed at us – like the call of the bugle in Kafka’s parable that he hears but the servant doesn’t. We can’t make these experiences happen – but we have to be open to hear them, see them, feel them, to think about them. That’s down to us. That’s our work: we are receivers of revelation, we are given glimpses into a deeper reality, signs of deeper truths about life: about our life.
And it can be so frustrating that we can’t create these moments, we can’t plan for them, we can’t control them: because we may have a real wish to change, to be the recipients of new insights, new understanding – and our tradition encourages us to strive in that direction – but it can end up with us empty-handed and feeling flat or disillusioned or angry, and if that happens it’s probably because we are working too hard, too determinedly, too consciously, when what we need to do is wait, wait without hope, as the mystics and the poet said, ‘for hope might be hope for the wrong thing’. We are hoping for the thing we think we want, rather than the thing we need. So this year let’s try to wait, patiently, without too much striving, wait with what I rather inadequately described earlier as a ‘wandering attentiveness’.
For me this waiting is done in the spirit of a wonderful short text from Kafka, which found me this year, and that I want to share with you and finish with:
It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.
That’s the promise of the Yomim Noraim: if we remain open and attentive, we will be given what we need.