Shana Tova! It is so good to see you once again as we begin our observance of these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, as together we celebrate Erev Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of this New Year of 5773 and, according to Tradition, the birthday of the world. This is our second service this evening. You may not be aware that our Rosh Hashanah Ruach service took place at 5:30, followed by a holiday dinner to which the entire congregation was invited. There are a lot more of us at Oheb Shalom than those of us here tonight. Before I begin my formal remarks to you, allow me to recount to you what may very well be a true story:
“Bill Gates advertised for two new board members for Microsoft Europe. Five thousand candidates turned up for the job screening. Among them is Maurice Cohen, a small, bespeckled and bearded French Jew. Bill Gates thanks the candidates for coming but asks all those who are not familiar with the JAVA programming language to excuse themselves. Two thousand people rise and leave the room. Maurice Cohen says to himself, “I do not know this language but what have I got to lose if I stay? I will give it a try.” Bill Gates then asks all those who have no experience managing teams of more than a hundred people to leave. Another two thousand people leave. Maurice Cohen says to himself, “I have never managed anybody but myself but what do I have to lose if I stay? What can happen to me?” Then Bill Gates asks all candidates who do not have doctoral degrees to rise and exit the room. Another 500 people leave. Maurice Cohen, who never graduated from high school, says to himself, “What have I got to lose if I stay?” So he remains in the room. Lastly, Bill Gates asks all of the candidates who do not speak Serbo-Croatian to leave the room. Maurice Cohen says to himself, “I do not speak anything but French, but I have come this far and have nothing to lose.” Only two people, Maurice Cohen and one other man, remain in the room. Bill Gates joins them and says, “Apparently, you are the only two candidates who know JAVA, have managed large teams of employees, have doctoral degrees and speak Serbo-Croat. I would like to hear you converse with one another in Serbo-Croat. Calmly, Maurice turns to the other candidate and says to him, “Baruch Ata Adonai.” The other candidate answers, “Eloheinu Melech Haolam.” Both get the Board positions.”
Such is the power of prayer.
Over these next ten days, we will spend hours together in the Greenebaum Sanctuary and the Blaustein Auditorium, praying to a God about whom many of us are ambivalent and engaging in an activity that the vast majority of us are unaccustomed to at best. Tonight, I will speak about the purpose of prayer. Tomorrow, I will address the most salient moral issue of this election cycle, and on Erev Yom Kippur, I will reflect upon the God to whom we pray.
Those of us who engage in regular physical exercise understand that working out is not always fun. We often have to push ourselves to get to the gym and can think of many more pleasant activities than sweating and groaning as we push our bodies to extend themselves and grow healthier and stronger. Despite our inertia, we always feel better when we are finished than we did before we started. I began exercising regularly last June, right after I was diagnosed as a diabetic. I started walking around the neighborhood almost every day, pushing up the pace and increasing the distance. I felt better but knew I needed more. So I took Sally’s advice and joined her gym, and now work out four to five days a week, doing upper body, lower body, and cardio vascular workouts on alternating days. I haven’t been in this kind of shape in twenty years.
Praying is a spiritual exercise. It is difficult to come to services just twice a year and feel like our prayers are effective. Just as we must stretch before physical exercise, so must we spiritually stretch ourselves before the intense prayer of the High Holydays. Just as our muscles will stiffen and hurt if we do not exercise properly, so will we be left uninspired and listless if we are not adequately prepared to pray. So that we can be spiritually invigorated, we need to understand why we are here and what we are supposed to do. Allow me to share some thoughts with you.
The Rabbis tell us to serve God with all our hearts. Prayer, they teach us, is service of the heart (Rambam, Code, Laws of Prayer 1:1). When we engage in authentic prayer, we judge ourselves. The root of the word for prayer, t’filah, is pay-lamed-lamed. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb), the 19th century German sage, it originally meant “to deliver an opinion about oneself, to judge oneself. It denotes to step out of active life in order to attempt to gain a true judgment about oneself, that is, about one’s ego, about one’s relationship to God and the world…Accordingly, we should at times tear ourselves loose from this existence which endangers our true lives, and strive in prayer to renew our strength for life and regain our right and will for truth, righteousness, and love.”
This is our task as well during these next Ten Days of Awe- to stand alone before God, without veneer, without role or pretense, judge ourselves and, in turn, be judged by God. Through sincere and intense prayer, we form an intimate relationship with God- and there are times in life when we feel that relationship with God is all we have. Tomorrow we will read in our Haftarah the story of Chana. Chana felt bereft and forsaken. In a community in which children were everything, she had none. In a moment that epitomizes the meaning of prayer, Chana opened herself up to God. In her despair, she promised to dedicate her child to God’s service if God allowed her to have one. Thus was born the Prophet Samuel, dedicated to God since his birth, an extraordinary man who became the leader of the Jewish people.
This does not mean that God always grants our petitions. In fact, most prayers go unanswered. But God listens…God listens. God is the “Shomei’ah T’filah,” the one who hears our prayers. The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once wrote (Worship of the Heart), “Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness but the belief that through it we approach God intimately, and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born.” Sometimes, if we work intensely, we can achieve a truly spiritual moment, a time when we feel close to God. The encounter of spirituality is in the space between the Divine and human. It is like our nerve endings are touching, when we feel a distinct connection with the Eternal. With sincere and concentrated prayer we may, during this High Holyday season, feel that close connection with God.
Just one more point before I conclude. There is an alternative meaning to the root for the Hebrew word prayer, pay-lamed-lamed. When our ancestor Jacob finally sees his presumed dead son Joseph after many years, he declares “Re’oh panecha lo pilalti,” meaning “I never gave up hope of seeing your face (Genesis 48:11).” This alternative meaning of the Hebrew word for prayer is “hope.” Rabbi Edward Fuld wrote, “On a deeper level, the word panecha or face, may refer to God. In this reading, Jacob proclaims, “By seeing Your Face, by being reliant upon You and certain of Your love, concern and support, I never lost hope.”
I never lose hope that true prayer can be efficacious, that it can intimately connect us to God and, in the process, can change our lives. As we stand before God and engage in self-judgment, we yearn to become more loving, considerate, and moral human beings. We hope to become conduits of God’s will, to partner with God and help do God’s work here on earth. Let us, year round and especially now, engage in intense spiritual exercise so that we will stretch out and try our human best to connect with God.
May this New Year of 5773 be a better year for you, your loved ones, the Jewish people, and our entire world.