Roadmap to Teshuva #3: Sleeping through the storm

15 Elul, 5780/ September 4, 2020

During the month of Elul, Sephardi Jewish communities have the practice of waking early to recite selichot, penitential prayers, before the morning service. The Sephardi cycle of selichot opens with words of poetry:

בֶּן אָדָם, מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם, קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים.

שְׁפךְ שִׂיחָה, דְּרשׁ סְלִיחָה, מֵאֲדון הָאֲדונִים.

Ben Adam, mah lecha nirdam? Kum, k’ra betachanunim!

Sh’foch sicha, d’rosh slicha, me-adon ha’adonim. 

Human being, why are you asleep? Rise up and cry out in supplication!

Pour out your words, seek forgiveness from the Master of All. 

The first line comes from the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. A reluctant prophet, Jonah attempts to flee from his mission on a ship. Caught in the midst of a violent storm, the ship’s captain shakes Jonah awake: “How can you be asleep?! Get up and and call to your God! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6). 

The piyyut draws the comparison between us and the prophet Jonah, sleeping soundly through the storm and in need of being shaken awake. Like Jonah, who runs away from what he must do, we might also find it difficult to engage with the process of teshuva. The poem exhorts us to shake off our complacency, or even willful avoidance, to confront the task that is set before us at this moment. We are invited to see the process of teshuva as spiritually urgent – just as undeniable as the storm and requiring us to take action. 

Questions for reflection: 

  • What are the storms you need to confront during this High Holy Day season?
  • Is there anything that you feel that you’ve been “sleeping through” recently? 
  • What do you need to do to be fully awake and present during this period of teshuva?

You can read find the full text of this and other piyyutim from throughout the Jewish year here.

Watch and listen to a musical arrangement of the piyyut: 

May we all enjoy a peaceful and restorative Shabbat, that will help us awaken more fully to our needs in this season of reflection and repair.