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Selichot and Strong Coffee: Writing the Book That Is About to Be Opened

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The first café in Cairo opened in 1557, and it wasn't long before the popular new drink, coffee, had swept the entire Ottoman Empire. Suddenly, waking up very early in the morning became that much easier.

As one of the quirkiest articles in Jewish studies shows, the rising popularity of coffee catalyzed the popularity of soul-searching rituals by Muslims Sufis and Jewish mystics in the city of Safed. If staying up late at night is a time of bodily debauchery, early morning is the time of the pure soul. And it is the proliferation of coffee that is probably behind the proliferation of one of the most intense Jewish rituals: the waking up before sunrise for the recitation of Selichot.

The recitation of Selichot -- literally, "Forgivenesses" -- is said in the days preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and continues until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Brewing great coffee is one thing, but what is the work of Selichot? In a few short days the time will arrive in which "the books are opened, and all creatures are written in them, whom to death and whom to life" as the Talmud says of Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah 16b). These are the same books we sing about in the most important prayer of the High Holy Days, "uNetaneh Tokef": "On Rosh Hashanah we are written, and on Yom Kippur sealed."

What is this book in which we are written? The rabbis were fond of the book metaphor, and used it various ways. The second century patriarch of the Jewish community, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, describes it in the following way:

Look at three things
and you will not make a mistake:
Know that which is above you:
A watchful eye,
an attentive ear,
and all your acts are being written
in the book.

(Mishna Pirkei Avot 2:1)

The books being read on Rosh Hashanah are the great record of life as written down by the ever watchful eye. The work of Selichot is pre-empting the grand reading of this book by assessing what was written in it. We collect our deeds, figuring out what we did this year, as we line up our defenses, confess and come clean and hastily correct that which can be corrected -- before the trumpet sounds and court enters into session.

As a child growing up, we used to wake up early and go to Selichot in the Ashkenazi synagogue down the road. It was an incongruous combination of chest-thumping, the guilty-Jewish kind, and hastily mumbled litanies. The center of the Selichot is the recitation of the viduy, the confession of sins, setting the stage for the grand confessions of Yom Kippur. I was asked to read out my list of sins from that year ("I lied, I betrayed, I disrespected my parents") alongside sins that my pre-teen imagination was quite confused by. Once confession was over, the work of penitence was to begin, which seemed to be an ordeal by mumbling. The experience confirmed everything that modernists disliked about religion: cowering slaves in fear of being on trial by the all-knowing Lord, grasping onto the unintelligible and unending poetry of long deceased ancestors.

I resented the "book in which all is written," and was alternately cynical and terrified of the existence of a "watchful eye and an attentive ear." It seemed like the High Holy days were full of this ever-watchful God who -- like the KGB or Facebook -- has spies everywhere and knows what I am up to at all times. This panopticon approach to religion is exactly what makes so many people stay at home on the High Holidays: If that God exists, I'm not interested in playing; and if he doesn't exist, no need for me to show up anyway...

But I soon discovered that this was far from the only experience of the High Holy Days. When I was 9, I was invited by my teacher to Selichot at his synagogue, founded by Jews from Kurdistan. Here, Selichot were a different experience: cheesecake was served alongside the prayers, sweet tea accompanied the confession. The poetry was sung at a slow, loving pace, in beautiful Arab makams that showed all the vulnerability of the human condition and the yearning for the presence of the Divine: "Human being, who do you sleep? Rise and call out in supplication. Pour out your words, demand forgiveness, from the one who resides on high." In the context of this modest Kurdistani minyan, the crisis was not that I had sinned -- that was just part of being human. The bigger drama was that by fessing up I was taking ownership of what would be written in my book, and doing so in the compassionate presence of the "ever outstretched hand."

Inspired by that experience, I've come to understand a different model for this "divine book keeping." In the Selichot we promise to "search our ways, and investigate, and return to you." Thus the first step of Selichot is the gathering of our deeds, our words and signs from the past year. As a seasonal Naomi Shemer song goes:

Gather your deeds
the words and the signs
like a blessed crop
too heavy to convey.Gather the blossoming
which has since become a memory
of a summer that ended
too soon.
(listen to it here)

What happens when we gather our deeds? This is not an actuary act of "taking stock" or "judging ourselves." It is an act of storytelling: "all your acts are written in a book." By gathering ourselves the past year, we weave together our own story, our autobiography as we would like it to be told. We take authorship of the book of our lives. Having busily re-written our own book during those early mornings of Selichot, we present it for "divine reading" on Rosh Hashanah -- and await review by Yom Kippur. If in the Ashkenazi Selichot of my childhood God felt like a harsh judge, in that small Kurdistani synagogue I met a God who is more of a compassionate editor: calling us out on the places we fudged it, demanding we snip out certain pieces, but all in all a collaborator on the joint project which is our life story. The watchful eye and the attentive ear are not waiting for me to trip up, but rather act like a sharp editor who is as invested in the outcome as I am.

Seeing the process of Selichot as re-telling the narrative of lives is engaging in what philosopher Jerome Bruner calls "life-making." Human beings are by nature storytellers, says Bruner. He quotes Jean-Paul Sartre:

"A man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it" (Sartre, "The Words").

All your acts are written in a book...

Indeed, we are constantly telling and re-telling our own story. Never has this been true as in the Facebook-era we live in, where we are constantly documented on a "timeline" for all the watchful eyes and attentive ears to "like." Scrolling down the "newsfeed" gives a strong sense of being "surrounded by [one's] own stories and those of other people."

Facebook aside, the stories we tell of ourselves each year are too often concerned with external achievements ("What did I achieve and conquer and win?") and the narratives that other people have written for us. Selichot is about taking ownership of our story as we would like it to be, refocusing it on a realm of internal attainment ("Who was I this year? How did I behave?"). Israeli psychologist Mordechai Rottenberg calls this "Midrashic Autobiography" and uses it as a therapeutic tool. Selichot create the setting for us to gather our deeds and write our own midrashic autobiography.

The act of self-storytelling can be a very self-involved work. Yet returning to Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi's saying with new eyes might serve as a corrective: "Know that which is above you: a watchful eye, an attentive ear, and all your acts are being written in a book." The season of Selichot invites us to write a book that is aware of "that which is above you." Perhaps we are no longer living in a world of divine "watchful eyes and attentive ears", but as much as we love our independence and autonomy, we also yearn to be a part of something larger than ourselves. That something from above - call it an "organizing narrative," a "higher power" or a "larger project" -- can serve as the sharp editor we need as we inscribe our story into the book of life.

Selichot is just as much about ensuring the future as it is revisiting the past. Bruner, being the constructivist that he is, makes a further point: when we are telling our story, we are not only reconstructing the past, but also setting the schemes and routines of the future. By telling the story of the past year as we would like it to be told, we are setting up the story that we will find ourselves weaving in the year to come. Indeed, such "world making" is the principal function of mind: we do it all the time, we might as well be purposeful about it.

And yes, this is best done by waking up early in the morning, making a strong cup of coffee and taking in our lives. In the quiet before dawn, with the smartphone still asleep and the stories the rest of the world tells of us not yet awakened, we can slowly gather our deeds, the words and signs, and retell the story as we would like it to be told, before the summer ends too soon; before the books are opened up and read for another year.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. He is the author of "A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices".

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