Delivered on Selichot 5774
Cantor Seth Warner
Congregation Shaare Emeth
Isn’t light amazing? Take a moment and look around. Appreciate the darkness, the shadows, the quiet, the light.
I’ve said that selichot is my favorite night of the year. And there are several reasons for it – the first is how it looks and feels in this sanctuary at this time of night – surrounded by light, but barely able to see. There is something still and profound and calming about being in this space with only candlelight.
The second reason I appreciate this evening so much is because of the contrast of our prayers. We are a community and, at the same time, we are here as individuals. Many of our prayers use the language of “us and we” – like Avinu Malkeinu – OUR ruler, painting these upcoming days of awe with shared responsibility, a shared call toward repentance and; God-willing, shared hope.
But the candle that each of us holds is a single reminder that you are an essential a part of this community. Without each of you, this room would be a dark and scary place. Our tradition values the concept of community so much – and we hear that word so often not just here, but in school and at work and in our social lives, that the term community becomes almost nebulous in meaning. Tonight, there is no getting away from its importance – the community, each single light in this room creates safety and, deep within that flame that you hold –it also contains warmth and, symbolically, maybe even hope.
This exercise of candlelight doesn’t just look pretty, it causes us to look carefully at the metaphorical meaning of light in our lives. The light bulb was invented 135 years ago, and we seemingly haven’t looked back. Our lives were immediately changed when we could work late into the night without the risk of burning down our homes, we could examine things more clearly with the ability to focus and hone our light. We were given greater freedom and safety in the streets, able to see those around us with greater clarity after dark. What an amazing gift.
But, like most things, too much of a good thing usually not good. When you take a picture on your phone or with a camera and there is too much light, what happens? The subject is so dark that you can’t see them. Or if you’re driving into the sun in the morning or evening, the sun blinds you – rendering everything washed in bright white.
Our cars have dome lights, fog lights and headlights – and, at the same time, sun visors and tinted windows. It’s an interesting dichotomy, isn’t it? Too much light, shows us too much, we are overwhelmed or washed out. Too little light doesn’t allow us to interpret shapes and faces and accurately distorts our perception of depth. But the right amount of light, allows us to see and be seen.
Much like an actor on a stage with a spotlight, who can’t see the audience because of the intensity of the light on him, we, too sometimes, are blinded by the light that shines on us. Symbolically speaking, sometimes that overabundance of light comes from spotlights we, ourselves shine upon us. Or, sometimes perhaps, it comes from our perception of we think people expect of us. On the flip side, sometimes we experience dark days in which we feel invisible or stuck in the shadows. Perhaps stuck in the shadows of those around us, or just stuck in the shadows of own lives – not feeling connected to even ourselves.
There is a balance of light that is needed in our lives, to be sure. Just like the white balance setting on a camera, in order to feel complete, we need to shine, reflect, resemble and absorb a balanced amount of metaphorical light in our lives.
But what does light symbolize for us? Surely it can represent attention, as in the example of the spotlight. It can represent a gift that shines forth from someone. It can represent a hope or a dream. And, maybe most important, it can represent a need. A need to receive or to give love; a need to help or be helped; or a need to hear or be heard.
As I prepare for these upcoming Holy Days, I will ask myself:
- Am I allowing enough attention shine on the person I’m with? Am I reflecting that attention in a positive way?
- Is there a way I can help show this person this gift that they have that I recognize, that they may not?
- Are my needs being met? And if they are, how can I share the goodwill that is building within me?
And, there are many other things that light represents. Take just a moment, looking at your flame, and think about your light – what does yours represent to you?
This period of self-discovery, self-study and sharing of light and life is what makes selichot my favorite night of the year. May these upcoming days and this new year shine brightly and sweetly on you and your families. Now, as we conclude our service, we will turn on one light for our safety and carefully extinguish our candles. We leave the sanctuary and the temple in silence tonight – allowing our feelings of calm and quiet to carry us carry us safely home.