Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah
Tefillah: To Whom Are We Speaking?
Yesterday, we discussed a three-pronged way of understanding what we are really doing in synagogue on the High Holidays. Using the assertion from the prayer Unetaneh Tokef that teshuvah, tefilah, utzedaka maavirin et ro’ah ha’gezerah – that “atonement, prayer, and charity transform the evil in the decree,” we began by analyzing what teshuvah can mean. This morning, then, let us take a closer look at tefilah, generally translated as prayer.
As I have often taught, the noun tefilah comes from the Hebrew verb l’hitpalel, meaning “to judge.” Since it is a reflexive verb, it can be better understood as meaning “to judge oneself.” So much of the imagery, however, seems externally directed – to G-d as our Parent, our Ruler, the Blessed Holy One, the Almighty Who sits enthroned, writing in a Book of Life. Where are the images of self-judgment? And can we pray using the traditional imagery of kingship, using words that may or may not resonate within us?
Returning to the idea that l’hitpalel is a reflexive verb, where is the border between external praise and petition, and inward soulful examination?
When we pray, we must then ask, to whom are we praying? To literally follow the meaning of the verb and say “to ourselves,” is to seriously miss the mark. Rather, the act of prayer comes from a soul-searching, an internal inquiry into our deepest thoughts, our most closely held beliefs, and our most elevated motivations, turning those into words that are either then spoken aloud or uttered silently, so softly that no one’s ears, even our own, can hear them. Who, then, is listening? G-d!
But Who is G-d? Each of us can and will have a different answer to that, ranging from the most traditional and supernatural to the most post-modern or scientific. I would not attempt to define for you Who or What G-d is; I can only tell you what images of G-d do or do not work for me. However, I can tell you that I could not be an atheist, because to believe that there is no god is to say that everything is random, and I don’t see how that could be possible.
Those who have studied with me in the Process Theology, Psalms, and other classes have heard my theology, so I apologize to them at the outset, but allow me to repeat it now because it is relevant to how I envision prayer. Although I take none of the account of the creation of the world in sefer Beraishit, the book of Genesis, literally, I see it all as highly symbolic, evocative, and holy. One image that works particularly well for me is that of the creation of humankind, symbolized by G-d’s creation of Adam. As we read in Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 7: “Then the LORD G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” I understand the last two clauses of that sentence almost literally – after G-d created people through the earliest ancestor, Adam, this lifeless flesh was given both breath and soul directly from G-d. What I learn from this is that every person contains the breath of G-d, a Divine spark, a unique human soul enlivened by the creative force of the universe.
When we pray, therefore, we needn’t focus our prayer-power in an almost unreachable quest for heaven’s gates, hoping to sneak our prayers in before the gates slam shut. No, when we pray, we only need to reach within ourselves, seeking openly to connect with the spark of the Divine that is always with us, always accessible, ready for connection and conversation.
And we know when we’ve related to the Divine spark, don’t we? Those times when we know we have really helped someone else, those times when we experience a sudden burst of enlightenment, when the vague and obscure become, in a flash, crystal clear, When witnessing the awesome power and beauty of the natural world, or at lifecycle moments when our patterns of life suddenly transform – those are G-dly moments, a brush with the Divine, a connection with the Eternal.
Let’s be frank, however; how many of those experiences, moments of radiance and enlightenment, and tastes of the holy do we enjoy regularly? They are rare for almost all of us, I would imagine. Yet, it is necessary, if we want to balance the normal and perhaps boring with an innocent love of the transcendent, to recognize and understand those insights and moments when they occur.
So, how does prayer fit into all of this? Tefilah can help train us to see more of those moments in daily living, to elevate us to knowing that we are divinely created holy beings capable of connection with the Force that Enlivens All, while keeping us grounded in the realities and occasional hardship of living life on Earth and with community.
The problems with engaging in prayer are many, I know – just because I am a rabbi, it doesn’t necessarily follow that tefilah comes easily and naturally to me. The problems that I face might be the same ones with which you might struggle – finding adequate time, interest, and freedom from distraction to focus on prayer, difficulties with much of the wording and imagery of the prayers, and feelings of inadequacy to the task of connection with the Divine. It is understandable that the Amidah, the standing silent prayer, begins with the sentence “Adonai sefatai tiftach ufee yagid tehilatecha” – “O G-d, open my lips that I might utter praise.” This kavannah, this focusing phrase, is a prayer that we might be allowed to pray!
However, so much of the prayer language in our siddurim, our prayerbooks, and our mahzorim, the prayerbooks that we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, uses words and images that might not always, or perhaps even ever, speak to our souls. It is not fair to fault the prayers and their ancient and Medieval authors – I believe that they tried their best in the words and vernacular they used to express feelings and ideas that are difficult if not impossible to fully describe. The authors of the modern age faced the same problems.
The prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be particularly problematic – we are directed by them to acknowledge our sinfulness, which is hard to do. The many repetitions of the confessional of sins, the Ashamnu, with its statement of a Hebrew expression of sin for each letter of the alef-bet, the list of Al Chet sins, and the breast-beating – the whole experience can feel like a big guilt trip, something that we might instinctively reject. Of course, there is a lot more going on with the High Holiday liturgy than communal confessions of sins, but that one feature, sadly, in my opinion, turns off a lot of people. The prayers are filled with images of G-d enthroned on high – reassuring to some, no doubt, but difficult to relate to for many others. The task of relating ancient imagery to contemporary relevance is a hard one indeed.
Yet, the urge to pray, to reach simultaneously beyond and within, persists. We can, and should, seek out the gems to be found in the texts, but more is needed. How do we express the praise, the gratitude, and the humble requests that comprise prayer in ways to which we can relate?
We still face the same predicament known to our ancestors – if we are to try to pray, how do we do so if the mahzor often disappoints us? Going along with my strong contention that Judaism is not a spectator sport, I recommend that, if we are to fully engage in tefillah, we should try as they did to express ourselves in writing in ways that we find meaningful. Write down your thoughts, your most meaningful prayer, in your own words, and bring them with you on Yom Kippur. Some time during the day, take out your prayer and read it to yourself. Don’t worry about sharing it with anyone. If you would like to do so, of course, go ahead – but that means opening yourself up, which for many is uncomfortable. The key is to have a personal prayer that you can use to completely and honestly express what you most need and want to say this year. Don’t worry about how the words flow, or whether it is appropriately written, or whether it pales in beauty and form compared to the grand images found in the mahzor. Work on it and polish it, if you wish, but the crux is to create a tefilah that you can honestly pray.
Why do I suggest that you write it out freehand or print it rather than simply think about it and say what is in your heart? We are humans and most of us need props – holding a piece of paper often helps us not only to remember but to better connect with the words. The hope is that the physical text will lead us to greater internal exploration, just as the Written Torah inspired the Oral Law, which in turn, led to greater and greater learning, and ever deeper engagement with its transformative teachings.
And I urge you to also read the prayers that others have written – one of the wonderful things about tefilah is that it can express the most unique and the deepest passion of an individual. We pray with others so that we can draw on their prayer energy for inspiration and encouragement and so that they can draw on ours as well. I recommend the readings and poetry on pages 87 to 93 of our mahzor for meditations on prayer that might prove helpful.
My pledge is to attempt to be more prayerful this year, for my congregation’s and my own benefit. If you have no desire to be more fully engaged in tefilah yourself, you are, of course, still welcome in services, but I don’t understand how it can be very interesting for you. There is of course, communal sharing, and a satisfaction in seeing the congregation gather, and a lot to be gained from the Torah and haftarah readings, but the element of prayer is primary during the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, as the High Holidays are known. If achieving even a little of that sense of awe is the goal, we need to awesomely pursue it.
My prayer is that we are all more able to connect through prayer this year. I wish a shana tova u’metuka, a good, sweet year, to you and all your loved ones.