As I was leaving a national Jewish educator’s conference this week, everyone was wishing each other a Shanah Tovah. And I wanted to say: WAIT – I am not ready!!! I never feel this way when December 31st is coming, but I always have this sense of not being ready for Rosh Hashanah. Why is that?
There is certainly a difference in tone between the Jewish celebration of a New Year, and the secular celebration of a New Year. January 1st is celebrated with parties, drinking, and dancing. I am always ready for happy celebrations! Rosh Hashanah, though, is marked by reflection, by self-evaluation, and by a small measure of fear, as we approach G-d, the King, who will evaluate our moral behavior and decide how our incoming year will be. Some Jews understand this very literally; others see this as a metaphor. Regardless of how we see it, Rosh Hashanah is a time to take stock of what we did or did not do in the year that is concluding, and make resolutions for the year to come. This is by no means something to be taken lightly, which brings me to the traditional Torah and Haftarah readings of the two days of Rosh Hashanah. We can’t say these are “light” readings.
On the first day, we read the passage from the book of Genesis which speaks about Isaac’s birth. The Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah speaks about Chana’s prayer (said with such fervor that Eli, the priest, took her for a drunken) and the subsequent birth of her son Samuel, who later became the prophet. What do these readings have in common, and what can their message be? While there is certainly a beauty in the fact that on this Rosh Hashanah, in 2015, we will be reading exactly the same parts of the Bible that our grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents before, read hundreds of years ago, the Bible is relevant to all of us at all times, not just “in the past.”
Sarah and Chana were both barren women of husbands who have a child (or children, in the case of Chana) with another woman (Hagar and Penina, respectively). Can we imagine their pain? Those who have dealt with infertility issues understand it just too well – wanting, hoping, praying for a child and not being able to hold that baby in their arms. Walking down the streets and looking at pregnant women or women with babies is so painful it is hard to describe. And yet – they continue to pray that their time will come, that they will have a child. Those who have not had to deal with infertility might not be able to understand this specific kind of pain. But who among us has not felt a need for something in their life (whether a partner, a job, a cure, or something else) and has prayed for it for months or years, still hoping one day our wish will be granted, our need will be fulfilled?
On Rosh Hashanah we spend many hours in prayer. I believe that the Bible readings of the first day set the tone for a meaningful holiday. G-d does not need us to say prayers – He hears the prayer of the heart, He does not need the words. We are the ones who need the words. The verb “to pray” in Hebrew, lehitpalel, is a reflexive verb. Praying is something we do to ourselves. By saying those words, we remind ourselves of what our needs are, and what the needs of our communities are. By praying, we make a conscious decision to change ourselves in order to become better human beings, living a life of higher purpose, as much as we admit to G-d and ourselves the many unfulfilled needs that we have. We allow ourselves to see how vulnerable we are, how unpredictable life is. We hope and pray that G-d will remember our needs as He remembered Sarah’s and Chana’s.
Judaism gives us a set routine of prayers to say, all printed in our prayer book – the machzor. I am frequently asked - What if we cannot read the Hebrew? What if we can read it, but not understand what we are saying? And what if we can read, understand, but are not moved by the words written by others? My answer is always to find time during services to speak to G-d from the depths of your heart. G-d understands! An old Chassidic story conveys this:
One time a Jewish peasant boy came to the big town to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. He didn't know how to pray. He could not even read the letter Alef. He only saw that everyone was traveling to the synagogues to participate in the holy prayers. He thought, "If everybody is going to town I must go too!"
He arrived at the town synagogue with his father and watched the congregants crying and singing together swaying to and fro. He turned to his father and asked, "Father, what is this all about?"
His father turned to him and said, "The Holy One blessed be sits enthroned in the heavens and we pray all year long to Him. We especially pray during these two days of Rosh Hashanah when the whole world is being judged and each person is being judged for the rest of the year."
The son responded, "Father, what am I to do since I do not know how to pray?"
His father quickly said to him condescendingly, "All you have to do is be quiet and listen to the other Jews praying. That is enough for you."
"But Father, if I don't know what these people are saying how is that going to effect G-d's decision? How is being silent going to help me?"
His father became unnerved and blurted out, "Listen, you should be quiet so no one will know you're an ignorant peasant!"
The son stood still for a couple of minutes as his father and the rest of the congregation continued praying and then - the young boy stood up and spoke loudly.
"I am going to pray to G-d in the way I know best. I will whistle to G-d as I whistle to my flock of sheep."
He began whistling the sweet calling as most shepherds know. His father was enraged. The boy continued whistling with all his might not caring what other people thought.
Now, it happened to be, that this particular Rosh Hashanah, all the heavenly gates were shut and suddenly because of this pure whistling of the heart, all the gates burst open. The prayers of Israel were finally heard.
This Rosh Hashanah, allow yourself to pray hard, to pray from the depths of your heart, to really ask G-d for what you need. Like Chana, pour out your soul. We read in our prayer books: Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’goali, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer." My wish for all of us is that the words that come from the depth of our hearts, this Rosh Hashanah, will be heard and answered by G-d. May you have a year of many blessings!