I want to share my sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Audacity in Prayer – Rosh Hashanah 5773
As we begin look forward to the new Jewish calendar year of 5773, I feel an overwhelming sense of ‘now what?’ We gather every year on Rosh Hashanah and pray to G-d. We begin the ten day process of penance that culminates in Y”K. Yet, what are we doing? Can we possibly stand in judgment before G-d? I recall some years ago standing on Y”K, reciting the Al cheits, clopping my chest with my fist, and I began laughing inside. I felt as though standing in G-d’s presence and confessing sins must be the ultimate cosmic joke. Yet, here we stand again, on judgment day, proclaiming G-d as King and hoping that we are written for good.
When we enter Rosh Hashanah, we have high hopes, even in the midst of the challenges around us. We hope this will be a better year. But what can we really say before G-d? To answer this question, I would like to look at three descriptions of prayer in the Bible as seen through the eyes of the rabbis of old, Chazal, for through this exploration we can have a deeper sense of the grandeur of prayer.
G-d tells Abraham that the plan is to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the other outlying cities due to their wickedness. G-d offers this warning to Abraham because G-d feels that Abraham, as the eventual “owner” of the land, should know what will happen to some of his territory. When Abraham hears about the destruction, he doesn’t just let it happen. Rather, he tries to bargain with G-d, asking Him to spare the cities even for 10 righteous people in these 5 cities. And while the prayers ultimately did not save these cities (though probably helped in sparing his nephew Lot and his two daughters), the story is recorded to show how humanity should approach G-d. We should be strong enough to bargain but also recognize the limitations of compromise.
The book of Deuteronomy begins with the verse, “these are the words that Moses spoke in…” giving us a long geographic description. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that the list was really a veiled attempt at chastisement. Instead of fleshing out what happened, Moses merely mentioned places or descriptive titles to describe the sins of the people in the desert. One of the terms, Dei Zahav, the place of Gold, refers to the building of the Golden calf. Rashi quotes from the Talmud in tractate Berachot, which says that these words actually reflect a conversation between Moses and G-d. Moses tells G-d, ‘it is Your fault the people made the Golden Calf because you gave them all that gold and silver.’ Moses, in pleading with G-d to save the people from destruction, resorts to blaming G-d for the faults of humanity.
The third biblical reference is from the beginning of the book of Samuel, describing Hannah, Samuel’s mother, as she prays for G-d to give her a son. The fourth chapter of BT Tractate Berakhot describes how we learn about prayer from Hannah. In the midst of this discussion, which extrapolates lessons from the description of how she prays, including how why the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service contains two extra sections, the Talmud (31b) teaches us a very difficult monologue. The Talmud records an embellished prayer of Hannah’s. She turns to G-d and says:
Dear G-d, you are the Master of the Universe. If it suites You to provide me a child, good. If not, then I will have no choice but to force your hand. I will seclude myself with other men, forcing my husband to have to bring me to the Tabernacle (in Shilo as the Temple was not yet in existence), where I will have to drink the waters of the suspected adulteress. At that point, my innocence will be proven, and as You have promised, the innocent woman will be fertile. Only then will I have a child.
When I came across these words, I began to tremble. How could such a righteous woman, one of the prophetesses, have the audacity to speak so harshly to G-d? Could any of us imagine doing the same? The same can be said for the first two stories as well. Can one imagine bargaining or critiquing G-d if we knew G-d would actually respond back?
For most, Rosh Hashanah revolves around the blowing of the Shofar. The Shofar represents Abraham having the strength to withstand G-d’s ultimate test, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In the merit of Abraham not arguing with G-d, we blow the shofar, representing the ram that Abraham sacrifices instead of Isaac.
Yet, as we stand on Rosh Hashanah, year in and year out, praying and hoping for a sweet year, we run into a problem. Just like the people of Israel in the desert, whom Moses defended by saying that G-d caused the sin because of the excess of riches, we too could make the same claim. Why is it we don’t turn to G-d and argue:
Dear G-d. We are here again standing in your shadow. We are in your presence. We are unworthy, because we are full of sin. But you know what G-d, it’s your fault we sinned. You are the master of the world. You created us with good and evil. You created the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. Therefore, we are blameless because without that stumbling block, we wouldn’t be in need of judgment each year.
Could any of us imagine saying such a thing? And yet, the rabbis of 2000 years ago put those similar words into Moses’ mouth. As an aside, the Talmud also shares a story about how after the destruction of the first Temple, the people begged G-d to remove the evil inclination from their midst so as not to fall into the trap of idolatry. And G-d obliged. While this led to a society free of sin and blemish, this also had an untold consequence. Men and women no longer showed interest in each other, thus not fulfilling the basic human element of procreation, which as we shared before, is such a basic instinct that a woman as great as Hannah would sin in order to become fertile. So G-d reinstated the Yetzer Hara, thus putting us back into the same predicament.
What is the message of these three areas of confronting G-d, bargaining, critiquing and threatening, and how can we relate this to the moment, standing before Shofar blowing and Mussaf?
The answer lies in a fundamental aspect of belief. If we truly believe in the idea of Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, then we would be more willing to be audacious in prayer. When we request something from another, we assume the other is in a position of strength because they can grant or deny our request. Yet, unlike the general request, we look to G-d not just as the one in power. We also see the softer side, Avinu, the parent. When a child wants from a parent, they will resort to almost anything to get it, as all of you recall, either as the child or the parent. When we stand on Rosh Hashanah, do we feel that we can talk to G-d as a child before the parent, ready to say almost anything to get what we want? This is the lesson of the bible and the rabbis. Prayer is twofold, recognizing the true power and also recognizing that true power being merciful and willing to give if prodded. As we cry through the primal sound of the shofar and prayer the special mussaf, may we merit the strength and ability to approach G-d and cajole and argue for a year filled with good, a year filled with life and find the ultimate of forgiveness again during these 10 days of penance.