The Lessons of Selichot: Empathy and Perspective-Taking

As we look towards Rosh Hashana this coming week, we are in the midst of a time of preparation for the High Holidays.  Through cheshbonhanefesh, a self-reflective process of introspection, we ask ourselves: Who have I been?  Who do I aspire to be?  One way that Jews traditionally get in this reflective frame of mind is by reciting selichot, prayers of supplication, asking for forgiveness.

Selichot are a collection of Biblical verses and piyutim, liturgical poems composed by Jews from 8th to 13th centuries.  Sephardic communities started reciting selichot on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and most Ahkenazi communities began last Saturday night.  Looking at the structure and content of the Selichot, I believe we find powerful lessons about our shared humanity, which compel us to nurture our humility and develop skills for empathy and perspective-taking.  (As with most aspects of Jewish practice, there are diverse versions of the selichot liturgy.  The reflections below are based on Minhag Lita, the Lithuanian version of the selichot, commonly used in Ashkenzi communities.)

Only God is perfect.  All human beings are flawed.
The Selichot begin with a long list of biblical verses about God’s power.  God is the Creator of everything.  All powerful. All knowing.  God stands above all others.  For example, this quote from Psalms…

(כִּי גָדוֹל אַתָּה וְעֹשֵׂה נִפְלָאוֹת אַתָּה אֱלֹ-קים לְבַדֶּךָ (תהילים פו:י
For You are great and work wonders; You alone God. (Psalms 86:10)

When faced with God’s awesomeness, we are humbled.  We, of course, cannot compare to the list of God’s powerful deeds and characteristics.  So we approach these prayers with a stance of humility.  We recite…

מַה נֹּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ יוֹשֵׁב מָרוֹם
What can we say before You, Who dwell on high?

Moreover, while God may be perfect, none of us are.  This point is repeated over and over in
theselichot prayers.  None of us are blameless- all human beings are flawed.  We all make mistakes and occasionally do wrong.  For example, we recite this paraphrasing of quotes from the prophets Micah and Isaiah…

אָבַד חָסִיד מִן־הָאָרֶץ וְיָשָׁר בָּאָדָם אָיִן
אֵין קוֹרֵא בְשִׁמְךָ בְּצֶדֶק
The pious are gone from the world, and there is no upright among people.  
No one calls on Your Name with righteousness.

In recitation of Selichot, we don’t pretend to be blameless.  We confess…

שֶׁאֵין אֲנַחְנו עַזֵּי פָנִים וּקְשֵׁי עֹרֶף לוֹמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה אֱלֹקינוּ וֵאלֹקי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ צַדִּיקִים אֲנַחְנוּ וְלֹא חָטָאנוּ 

אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ וַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ חָטָאנוּּ

For we are not so brazen and obstinate as to say before You, Lord our God and god of our ancestors, that we are righteous and did not sin. For we and ancestors sinned.   

Here we admit that it is in all of our nature to make mistakes, to sometimes follow our baser impulses, and other times to hurt people around us.  It is how we are, and it is how our ancestors were.

We stand together in our shared, flawed, humanity

The way the selichot prayers are written highlights our shared humanity.  The selichot are almost entirely in the plural: we all have sinned.  God, please forgive all of us.  Much of the selichot is drawn from Biblical sources, and the liturgy as it is recited today includes rewriting of Biblical verses from the singular to the plural.  A couple of examples:  We recite…

תָּבֹא לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ וְאַל תִּתְעַלַּם מִתְּחִנָּתֵנוּ
Let our prayer come before You, do not ignore our supplication.

Which is a rewrite of two quotes from Psalms…

(תָּבוֹא לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי (תהילים פח:ג
(וְאַל תִּתְעַלַּם מִתְּחִנָּתִי (תהילים נה:ב
Let my prayer come before You (Psalms 88:3) 
Do not ignore my supplication (Psalms 55:2)

And we recite…

אֲדֹנָי שִׁמְעָה בְקוֹלֵנוּ תִּהְיֶינָה אָזְנֶיךָ קַשֻּׁבוֹת לְקוֹל תַּחֲנוּנֵינוּ
God, hear our voice; may Your ears be attentive to the sound of our supplications.

Which is a rewrite of the verse…

(אֲדֹנָי שִׁמְעָה בְקוֹלִי תִּהְיֶינָה אָזְנֶיךָ קַשֻּׁבוֹת לְקוֹל תַּחֲנוּנָי (תהילים קל:ב
God, hear my voice; may Your ears be attentive to the sound of my supplications. (Psalms 120:2)

In this example, I think it is noteworthy that the word from the verse, בְקוֹלִי, my voice, is not re-written בקולותינו, our voices.  Rather, בְקוֹלֵנוּ, our singular voice. We pray together in one voice.  And in doing so, we are bound together in our shared, flawed, humanity.  This idea is echoed in the more well known portion of selichot, included in high holiday liturgy…

שְׁמַע קוֹלֵנוּ ה’ אֱלֹֹקינוּ חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן אֶת־תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ
Hear our voice, Lord our God, have mercy and be compassionate to us.  And accept with compassion and favor our prayer.

This is also expressed powerfully in a couplet from a piyut recited the first night of selichot and attributed to Rabbi Shlomo Bar Yehuda, also known as Shlomo Habavli, who lived in Italy in the 10th century C.E.

יַחַד כְּכָל צִדְקוֹתֶיךָ לְרַחֲמֵנוּ

יָשׁוּב נָא אָפְךָ וּתְנַחֲמֵנוּ
United together, may You, in all Your righteousness, have compassion upon us.  
Please turn back Your anger, and console us.

When we stand before the Creator, we are united.  No one person stands above another before God.  No one of us is blameless.

Empathy and Perspective-Taking
I believe that these lessons from the selichot prayers compel us to nurture the skills and dispositions of perspective-taking and empathy, in ourselves and in our students.  By perspective-taking, I mean the ability to hold in one’s mind both one’s own understanding of an idea or problem and someone else’s opposing view at the same time.  The emotional corollary of perspective-taking is empathy, the ability to relate to someone else’s feelings.  Perspective-taking and empathy are both skills that require practice to hone, and dispositions that require flexible thinking and openness to others.

The selichot teach us that only God understands all things.  And so, we should approach our ideas and with humility.  We should open ourselves to the possibility that we have things to learn from other people’s understandings and perspectives. To do that, we need to practice taking in those other ideas and integrating them with our own.

The selichot also teach us that all of us, all human beings, have a common experience when it comes to standing before God.  And so, we should try to relate to other people’s feelings.  Even if we have not lived the exact same experiences, we can build on our shared humanity as we attempt to understand how they feel.

When we practice perspective-taking and empathy, we are better able to approach the biggest challenge posed by this time of the Jewish year.  Much harder than facing God in prayers of supplication is facing others in asking for and giving forgiveness.   When we come to those moments in a stance of taking another’s perspective and extending our empathy towards them, we are more likely overcome fear, anger, and hubris.  We are more likely to see and understand harm we have done to others, and then offer sincere apology.  We are more likely to see and understand the perspectives and feelings of those who have harmed us, and then forgive them.

In my letter to the parents this summer, I shared that as I visit Schechter Manhattan classrooms each day, I observe teachers helping students to practice perspective-taking and empathy.  This starts with interpersonal interactions – with students of all ages being asked and expected to consider the ideas and feelings of their peers.  Students in Schechter Manhattan classrooms work in collaboration with each other every day, and in those partnerships they learn to give and take, listen and contribute, support and challenge one another.  And when they disagree, Schechter Manhattan teachers help them find the tools and words to communicate effectively, hear each other, treat each other with caring and respect, and find a way forward together.  In regular classroom discourse, students become enculturated to the experience of one student sharing an idea or opinion and another safely expressing the opposing perspective.  The Schechter Manhattan teaching faculty takes responsibility for nurturing safe classroom communities where this sort of constructive debate can take place.

As we begin a new school year and a new Jewish year, may we nurture our own capacities for perspective-taking and empathy.  May we see past our differences, to our shared humanity, and offer each other expressions of both apology and forgiveness.  May our students develop and practice perspective-taking and empathy, so that they grow into accomplished, menschy, and strongly Jewishly identified young people, who are poised not only to do well in life, but also to do good in the world.  And may God accept our prayers, forgive our sins, and bless us with a year filled with happiness, health, and much success.

שנה טובהذ

Benjamin Mann