Coming to Pray These High Holy Days

Coming to Pray These High Holy Days

(A text journey & sermon delivered by Rabbi Sacks on Saturday, September 17, 2022)

Some years ago Israeli archaeologists were cleaning a wall in the remains of a fourth or fifth century synagogue they had uncovered in Meroth in Upper Galilee. Suddenly a small metal artifact fell onto the stone floor, making a noise. It was a tiny bronze amulet which had been dislodged from a crevice in the synagogue wall. At the Israel Museum’s laboratories in Jerusalem, they found a prayer inside by one Yossai ben Zinovia. This prayer expressed a wish which Yossai apparently wanted to hide from others by secretly placing it into the wall. It reads:

 

As You prevail over the trees in winter and the grass of the land in summer, let the people of this village be subjugated before Yossai ben Zinovia. As the heavens are subjugated before G!d, and the earth is subjugated before humanity, and humanity is subjugated before death, and death is subjugated before G!d, so shall the people of this village be subjugated and defeated and subdued before Yossai the son of Zinovia. Amen selah. Hallelujah.

 

 Who was this Yossai? Was he a leader of the community or just an angry man who had many enemies and scores to settle? We don’t know; we have no other information about him. But what is very clear is that he expresses a will toward power and domination in a prayer that is quite contrary to the spirit of Jewish tradition and the High Holy Days we’ll inaugurate this evening.

Our tradition does have a prayer which speaks of subjugation. In the paragraph following the Birchot HaShachar, the prayer for HaShem’s compassion, we pray, V’chof et yitz-reinu l’hish-tachabed lach, Help us to control our inappropriate energy to be able to better serve You.” Its theme is not to subjugate others but to subdue our own impulses. Now that’s very much in keeping with the High Holy Day season. [And, in keeping with that prayer, we might wish to consider: What parts of yourself do you need to get a better hold on before the High Holy Days?]

Now, since during this season we’ll be spending quite a bit of time in prayer, I wanted to speak about prayer today. The truth is that while Judaism underscores the importance of prayer to ground our spiritual lives, Judaism also recognizes that not all prayers are good prayers. Nachman of Bratzlav, the Hasidic master, taught: A beyzer mensch ken nit davenen, “an angry person is unfit to pray.” Why? Because an angry prayer, like that of Yossai, will be full of venom and rancor, and there will be no room left for G!d. [So, as you prepare for the New Year, what anger or bitterness do you need to release before the New Year?]

The Talmud gives examples of other prayers that have dubious worth. It teaches, Ha-tzo-eyk al l’she-avar zo t’filat shav, “The one who cries over the past is uttering a vain prayer.” It gives the example of the parent who prays that the baby should be a boy or a girl. It considers that to be a foolish prayer because the gender has already been determined. [As we ready for the High Holy days, in light of this teaching, we might ask ourselves: What parts of your past do you need to let go of before the New Year?]

Another example of an improper prayer is the situation where you are returning from a trip and you hear a cry of distress as you approach your neighborhood. So you pray, Y’hi ratzon shelo yi’yu eyloo b’nai vey-ti, “Please G!d, don’t let those cries be from my family.” Such a prayer is wrong, not only because the cries have already been uttered and therefore someone or some ones have already been victimized, but because it is not ethical for a pray to infer that you hope for somebody else to be in distress. I suppose the only appropriate prayer in such circumstances would be an expression of hope that nobody has been seriously hurt, wherever the cries are coming from.

So, we can all affirm that certain prayers should never be prayed, and that formulating a proper prayer can take some thought. No wonder that our Tradition asserts that if you want to pray well, you have to prepare yourself emotionally and spiritually for the act of prayer. The Midrash puts it this way: Tzarich adam l’taheyr libo kodem she-yit-paleil, “A person needs to purify their heart before praying.” [Before Rosh HaShanah, we might–based upon this midrash–ask ourselves: How might you purify your heart before Rosh HaShanah?]

High holy days or not, some of us come to the synagogue with hearts that are full of sadness. Others are filled with despair. Some are worried about children or grandchildren. Others about work. Some are worried about managing their health. Some have suffered a loss. All of us, to some degree, have pent-up stress due to the long pandemic.

One Hebrew word that describes some of these feelings is atz-vut, sadness, depression, despondency, dispiritedness, a funk. The danger of atz-vut is that if we don’t fight it, it can consume us, destroy our spirit, and lead to bodily neglect or even harm. In order to pray well, we must struggle to free ourselves from destructive feelings of atz-vut lest they envelop us. To pray well means to believe that, regardless of the problem or circumstances, G!d will give us the strength we need to face whatever life brings our way, and therefore we will not be defeated by life.

There is yet another way in which we need to prepare ourselves in order to pray well these High Holy Days. Our Sephardic sisters and brothers recite the following prayer before going to sleep:

 

Ribono shel olam, hareini mochel v’solei-ach l’chol me she-hich’is oti,

“Will of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered me this day.”

 

What a beautiful prayer! And what a beautiful practice if we prayed this every night. [As we prepare for a New Year, you might wish to consider: Who do you need to forgive as you prepare for the New Year?] This prayer teaches something very important. We might have a very good reason to be angry with somebody who has offended or harmed us, but the longer we carry it with us, the more we brood about it, the more it will harm us, not the person we’re upset with. What the prayer tells us is that as long as you remain angry with another person, you will remain in bondage to them. For example, sometimes in situations of divornce, people will keep on fighting for years after the divorce is finalized. I know some people who obsess about an act of hurt or betrayal for much of their lives. This prayer states that if you want to sleep well at night, and pray well by day, forgive those who have angered you so that you can focus on the rest of your life; so you can focus on other, more satisfying relationships, and on the fashioning of your vision, your future.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century mystic, taught of a third requirement to praying well. Kodem she-yat-chil l’hit-peleil…tzarich l’kabeil alav mitzvat a-sei shel “v’hav-ta l’rey-acha kamocha, “Before one begins to pray, they must take upon themselves the fulfillment of the mitzvah, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” [As we approach Rosh HaShanah, how might you love other people more fully and palpably during and after these High Holy Days? The question asks you to consider not only close family and friends, but even casual acquaintances, people you merely encounter but don’t know, and even people you will not personally meet, but of whom you hear or read. After all, in this age of technology, we are all global citizens.]

According to Rabbi Luria, in order to pray well before G!d, you have to feel concern for G!d’s children. You have to include in your prayers Jews who are in danger in other places of the world. You have to give serious thought to the increasing number of Americans who are hungry, homeless, helpless, and hopeless.

Unless prayer heightens our sensitivity to the needs of others, we and our prayers will become egocentric and self-serving, and such prayers have trouble reaching G!d. To pray well means never to be satisfied with the status quo. It means to be involved in the constant struggle to improve G!d’s world.

The poet Louis Untermeyer expressed this idea quite well in a poem he called, “Prayer.”

            G!d, although this life is but a wraith,

                        Although we know not what we use;

            Although we grope with little faith,

                        G!d, give me the heart to fight–and lose.

            Ever insurgent let me be,

                        Make me more daring than devout;

            From sleek contentment keep me free

                        And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

            Open my eyes to visions girt

                        With beauty, and with wonder lit,

            But let me always see the dirt,

                        And all that spawn and die in it.

            Open my eyes to music, let

                        Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums

            But never let me dare forget

                        The bitter ballads of the slums.

            From compromise and things half-done,

                        Keep me, with stern and stubborn pride;

            But when at least the fight is won,

                        G!d keep me still unsatisfied.

 

[In reflecting upon this poem as we approach a New Year, consider: Do you need to be more daring? Do you have a “buoyant doubt”? Are you sometimes too satisfied? What visions are you open to approaching a New Year?]

To pray well means to be concerned for every human being.

May the teshuvah we do enable us to pray well these High Holy days.

And may our praying well lead us to doing well this coming New Year.

May we wish no ill of any one person or any group of people.

May we pray without anger or rancor.

May we confront and overcome any depressive spirit we may harbor.

May we not carry with us any bitter feelings toward others.

May our prayers show sensitivity to the needs of others.

May our hearts have room for all who need our love and support,

and may that include every human being.

Amen.

 

 

 

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