Rosh HaShanah 5775

Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada

This morning’s sermon is about tefillah. I am giving it now instead of after the Torah reading because we are about to pray the Amidah. I want the sermon to inspire our prayer. It’s like eating dessert first. I also want to remind everyone, that this is the last year we are using our red Gates of Repentance machzorim from 1978. The congregation raised money for brand new prayerbooks. That is very exciting and thank you.

After the Torah service today as on all Rosh Hashana services, we will read the beginning of the book of Samuel, where we learn the story of Chana. Why is this an appropriate Haftarah for the beginning of the Jewish New Year, when we are in shul for longer than usual, praying to God incessantly that our sins be forgiven? Because: Our matriarch Chana is responsible for the way we pray as Jews, and especially how we pray the Amidah, or the great standing prayer that is at the center of every prayer service. When you hear me chant the haftarah later, look for clues: how does Chana pray? —in a trance, lips moving, maybe swaying, unaware of anyone or anything around her – her prayer in the Temple is a prayer of such absorption that the High Priest believes her to be drunk. When do we ever pray so fervently that we fail to notice our surroundings and pour our whole selves into the prayer?


Chana’s prayer became the foundation for many of the rabbinic laws for how one should pray the Amidah. Rav Hamnuna said: How many important laws can be learned from these verses relating to Hannah! “Now Hannah was speaking upon her heart.” From here we learn that one who prays must direct his heart towards God. “Only her lips were moving.” From here we derive that one who prays must pronounce the words with his lips.”  For this reason, as Jews, we pray the standing prayer quietly but not silently. There is even a law that every single word and syllable needs to be pronounced clearly for the prayer to be received; therefore enunciating the prayer with our lips, just audibly enough for ourselves to hear it, is how this prayer is said. But it is not just action: the whole heart has to be in it. For this reason there are other laws that help create the state of total absorption that Chana achieved by the will of her heart: you are not allowed to interrupt someone who is praying the Amidah, besides the three steps back and three steps forward at the beginning you’re to keep your feet firmly planted throughout the prayer, and there’s even a law to relieve oneself before starting the prayer.


But how many of us really pray like this, or follow these laws which seem perhaps too detailed? And yet, how important it is that on Rosh Hashana, when we are praying before a new year, that our prayer for forgiveness be heartfelt…

Also, it is important that we at Temple Sinai develop a welcoming and aspirational communal prayer culture where people are inspired to strive to greater heights. If we constantly pause to examine every prayer, and constantly replace Hebrew for English, what incentive does one have to learn Hebrew (other than to become bar or bat mitzvah)? In Reform communities, we tend to place a high value on people being comfortable. Yet sometimes it is moments of discomfort, where one thinks “Wait, what is this prayer about; why are we doing this to ourselves?” that become meaningful moments of growth. To be truly inclusive and rewarding our prayer culture has to encourage people to be self-directed and actively engaged during prayer. In such a culture, the rabbi or prayer leader is a guide but not a substitute for one’s own prayer, where the prayers take on a life of their own.

That is no easy task. In order to be self-directed, everyone needs to develop their own relationship with the liturgy. People need to open up to the beginning of the Amidah, and have some level of familiarity with the words on the page, the progression of themes, and be committed to forming a personal understanding and relationship to those themes.

My teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schaechter Shalomi, who passed away this past summer and whose legacy I seek to carry on, always emphasized understanding. He taught that if there is a choice between praying in Hebrew without understanding, and praying in English while understanding everything, one should almost always go with English. (His exception was the Sh’ma, which must always be in Hebrew). But the Amidah, which is a personal prayer between each of us and God, could be in English because of how important it is to understand what we are saying. Yet taking it easy is not a Jewish value. We are constantly striving, and so, after a certain level of learning and praying in English, the training wheels should come off so that we intone the Hebrew words of the Amidah, glancing at the Engish only when we need a reminder of the meaning of a section.

There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that is required for prayer. Even if you are not sure you believe in a God that hears prayer, it is important that when you pray, you are able to focus not on your doubt about God, but as if you can enter into a relationship with God, whether you imagine God as the still small voice of conscience, or as a Judge on a throne deciding who will live and who will die. When we stand in prayer on our own, there is something about those thousand generations stretching back in time. This is the formula our ancestors have used to pray for thousands of years – the three steps forward and back, the words we recite on our lips, the attempt to make them reflect our hearts. The Amidah always begins with invoking the merit of our ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people with whom God entered into the Covenant of Israel, and whom God favored. By beginning every Amidah invoking their merit, we link our own lives to theirs, in the hopes that through that act of connection, of claiming our lineage and connection to these great souls, God’s ears will perk up just a little more to our prayers. We have to be fully conscious when we say these words and be aware that we are saying an ancient prayer and not reciting an interpretive reading as on other occasions.

One sees oneself as a snapshot in time: with so many ancestors before you and just as many yet to come. There is something so powerful about having a completely personal, individual connection with God through Jewish prayer while being surrounded by so many others in the room with you.

So what is more important, individual or communal prayer? The answer is: Yes.

Rabbi Eleazar Berkovitz teaches, “One can [always] pray because God is near, but God is nearer to the community than to the individual. When ten people pray, the Divine Presence is within them, for, ‘God stands in the congregation of God.’ There is something about praying communally where God hears our prayers at once. Berkovits goes on, in fact, to warn of the danger in praying alone:

Those rare personalities who in prayer alone fly to the Alone are so much in love with their personal salvation that they may become easily forgetful of the lot of humanity that is less gifted in seeking the way to God. In communal prayer, the hearts of those less able to pray as one may be awakened and carried along on the waves of communal inspiration.

But there is a different perspective too. [This wouldn’t be a Jewish sermon if I didn’t argue with myself!] In the 1970’s Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an essay entitled, “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer,” which offered a “state of the union” address on the state of Jewish prayer in the then- present day synagogue. Although he wrote four decades ago, much of his critique still rings true. He does not mention specific movements of Judaism in the essay, but his critique begins with the pomp and precision of services. Decorum was stifling the possibility of “adventure of the soul.” Nothing unpredictable ever happened in services, and thus spontaneous emotional responses were out of place. The construction of synagogue buildings was happening at an alarming rate, yet the worship inside was decaying. Heschel asked rhetorically whether leaders of American Jewry are members of “a burial society” and synagogues “the graveyard where prayer is buried?”

He complained about the distance between prayer books and congregants, and the air of tranquility and complacency, which he saw prevailing in synagogues. Heschel thought that people are embarrassed to take prayer seriously because of our sophistication and education, and that our services lack grace. He defines grace as “when the throbbing of a person’s heart is audible in his voice; when the longings of the soul animate his face.” This harkens back to how the book of Samuel and then the Talmud describes Chanah – the lightly audible voice, the full investment of the heart and soul. Heschel laments that there is altogether too much focus on synagogue attendance rather than on inspiring the hearts.

Harsh. But Heschel is not easy on the rabbis either. Heschel says that rabbis are to blame, in part, for taking up too much air time and making prayer about them. Oops.

Even with the best intentions, the High Holy Days can be tough. Of all the services throughout the year, the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are the most performance-like. At Temple Sinai, Reno’s Reform Jewish community, we have the luxury and ability to borrow and experiment with best practices from all movements of Judaism. My goal is a meaningful and empowered culture of prayer, where growth and learning is rewarded, and where people are never confused as to whether they are at a show or a prayer service. Participation requires education and familiarity with Jewish liturgy, so that people can let go in services, and be present in prayer. That requires forging a relationship with a prayer practice and letting go of self-consciousness. Heschel writes, [say slowly:] It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.

At Temple Sinai, our monthly Shabbat study group has become a wonderful davening circle that explores different formats of Jewish prayer: It started as a monthly Torah study and now includes a Shabbat morning service as well. We sit around circular tables in the social hall with breakfast and pray from our seats around the table. During the morning blessings, people add in what they are grateful for that week, and it is an informal enough group that when something moves someone or they have a question about a prayer, they call it out or we discuss it during the Torah study. You are each cordially invited to join us for the next Torah study and prayer, in the Sukkah on October 11th. In a different setting, our Talmud study group has been studying the tractate of Brachot, or Blessings, which is full of discussions about prayer. So in multiple settings, I am already working with micro-communities who are rethinking and growing in their relationship to prayer.

For the Amidah this morning, practice praying in the way Chana teaches us through her spontaneous prayer of the heart and lips in the Book of Samuel. Whisper every word on the page, in Hebrew or English, just loudly enough so that you know you’ve said it. Yet quiet enough so that your words won’t be audible to the person standing next to you. The person standing next to you might think you’re drunk, or bad at Hebrew, or bored, or way too into it, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you bring sincerity and intention to the words on the page, that you pray as if you mean it, that the whole world depends on your prayer. (Other prayers in the liturgy will remind us that we are all but Dust and ashes). Try standing for the whole Amidah: p. 104-119. Praying in community matters, so occasionally stop to listen to the murmers and feel the energy around you. In morning services, we pray the entire Amidah on our own, then are seated and we will stand again for the Amidah’s repetition.

Shana tova u’metukah,
May you each be inscribed in the Book of Life.