Over the next two weeks, Jews all over the world will gather together, spending many an hour in communal prayer. Finding one’s own voice of prayer, however, can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task.
Each of us can think of times when our need for the fulfillment of a very specific request was so intense that our only prayer was for the realization of that need: A moment in time when the drive for success, the dream of family, the desire for financial well-being, the hope for a new car, a bigger house, or other materialistic need, led to desperate cries to God, pleading for the fulfillment of that one need, or perhaps even the desire for the return to health of a loved one.
In these moments of private conversation with God, and desperate for the fulfillment of our NEEDS, we reveal our vulnerabilities, our innermost thoughts. In return we pledge to be the model, God-fearing, perfect person that, because we are human, we are completely incapable of being.
So, what happens after the moment is gone? What happens when we have asked God for something, perhaps even that “last thing I’ll ever ask for”, and then the next thing comes along? And, more importantly, what if the new job is given to someone else? Or when relationships change? Or the loved one, God forbid, does not heal? Is this the end of our prayers? It is human nature to want things and to express those wants to others and sometimes even to God. Why, then, do we come together for prayer today or any day for that matter?
Our rabbis of old created a fixed liturgy for every service day after day, year after year which emphasizes the communal experience of the Jewish people in its entirety. Does that mean that we should not have personal conversations with God? How are we to reconcile the distance between our collective prayer and our individual expressions?
Nowhere in Jewish text or literature is the articulation of this tension narrated more dramatically than in the Haftarah we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the remarkable story of Hannah. To understand the depths of her personal pleas and bargaining with God, we need to understand the circumstances of her life.
Hannah, we are told, is the favored wife of Elkanah. She, like many of the women of the bible, is barren and desperate to become pregnant. In addition, her co-wife, Peninah, is taunting her for her childlessness. In the biblical narrative, Hannah responds to Peninah’s barbs with tears and a hunger strike. Not understanding Hannah’s plight, her husband responds to her: “Why are you crying? Why are you refusing to eat? Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than 10 sons?”
Imagine Hannah’s emotional state. Not only is she unable to bear a child, but now, the person with whom she shares her closest, most intimate relationship, her husband, is unable to understand her feelings, leaving her feeling even more isolated and alone.
So, it is no wonder that when she makes her annual pilgrimage to the altar to bring sacrifices to God, she stands at the door of the temple and pours out her heart to God, imploring God to help her bear a child: “She spoke in her heart, and only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard”.
Hannah’s moment of supplication is a historic moment in the history of religion. Of all the petitions, prayers and psalms uttered in the Bible, it is Hannah’s heartfelt prayer that becomes the model and prototype for the institution of prayer. Praying silently, she becomes the first person to pray in a public place of worship. In that moment, Hannah originates silent prayer, prayer of the heart, asking God for something she desperately wants and thinks will solve all of her problems.
But, what does Hannah have to give up to have her need granted and what happens after her prayer is seemingly answered? Hannah wants a child more than anything in the world, and she bargains with God to make it happen. She bargains away the very thing she is asking for – her child: “And then I will give him unto the lord all the days of his life”, promising him to help the priests serve God in the Temple.
Her requests are heard and her bargain accepted, and so she finally gives birth. But, she does not get to raise her child, she hardly gets to see him, or play with him or watch him grow. (Perhaps she had never heard the saying “be careful what you wish for…”.)
Afraid and alone once again, what does Hannah do? She prays again, but this time, it is a very different prayer. This time, Hannah recites a song, a hymn of praise to God.
“My heart is exalted in Adonai…My horn is exalted in Adonai ... For there is none holy like Adonai …Neither is there any rock like our God.”
But, she also reaches out to others, trying to warn them against falling into her own trap. She cautions humans against excessive pride, at the same time celebrating God’s benevolence and redemptive powers, and God’s ability to bring change in human fortune and lift people out of their misery. Remarkably, Hannah does not talk about her own personal redemption or even her own move from barrenness to motherhood. Rather, she revels in a general idea of good fortune and the elevated status her experience has conferred on her. She transcends the boundaries of her individual state, placing her experience within the larger framework in which God’s “actions are weighed” and in which the destiny of each individual is linked together, transforming life’s challenges into opportunities for connection and spiritual growth.
Hannah’s desperate plea for a child began and ended with her. She had a motive – to get God to do what we she wanted God to do. But she also learned that there is another type of prayer. Without this second prayer Hannah would have remained alone and isolated. With no resources to draw on for support, it would not have been at all surprising if the next thing the narrative told us was that she sunk into a deep depression and became even more isolated from those around her. But, this is not the Jewish way of living.
Prayer that isolates us, which leads us to believe that we need only ourselves and have no need for other human beings; prayer that regards the community and its needs as unimportant - is not a full expression of prayer at all. The instant when our heart, disentangled from ambition and conceit, opens like a window – that instant is prayer.
Hannah’s second prayer was one that did not begin and end with her. It did not have ulterior motives. It was a prayer that did not ask to influence God, but rather, asked God to influence her. This was a prayer that enabled her to step out of the entrapment of self-interest. Once she did so she became aware of God and of other people. Only when she realized that her experience was not the measure of all things was she able to glimpse the holiness that pervades the world.
At the core, we are all like Hannah, hoping that our own prayer, particularly on these High Holy Days, cleanses our own soul and helps change the course of our destiny. We, too, hope that our prayers reach the gates of heaven and are heard by God. We all have the understandable impulses to ask God to conform to our needs and desires. We all know parts of ourselves that are broken; times when we feel needy, alone or afraid, when the outpouring of emotion calls us to plead with God for the fulfillment of our individual need. Our challenge is not what we do with our aloneness, but what we do with our togetherness.
Like Hannah, we are not alone in the world. Our coming together to pray reminds us of this. Rabbi Yochanan, an early teacher of the Talmud, suggests that when God enters the synagogue and does not find a minyan, God’s anger is sparked and God asks “maduah bati v’ein ish - Why have I come and there is not one? Karati v’ein oneh - I called out and there is no answer.”
When do we get angry? We get angry when we are upset or frustrated; when we feel let down; when we have been hurt.
It hurts God when there is not a minyan of people to pray together. The text suggests that God is present at every minyan and cares about every one of us being there as well. God is affected by our coming together to pray. And, so are we.
On the High Holy Days, each of us and all of us stand naked in front of God; we share our frailty and humanity with each other. By opening our own hearts to prayer and by standing together as a community, reaching out towards one another, we support each other. By coming together to worship, it is as though we open our arms to one another and invite each of us into a collective embrace and into the embrace of God.
As we come together over these High Holidays and in this coming year, may God give us the strength to transcend our personal needs and petitions with the love and support of community. May our prayer help draw each of us closer to one another, to the essence of who we are, and to knowing God.
God is calling. It is up to us to answer.