A little while ago when we sang Unetaneh Tokef, we proclaimed:

uteshuvah, utefillah, utsedakah ma'avirin et roa ha-gzeyra./   Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment's severe decree.

I’d like to speak this morning about the role of that second category --- tefillah.   We generally translate the word as "prayer," and the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives its primary definition for that English word as    

 (1): an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought prayer for the success of the voyage> (2): a set order of words used in praying b: an earnest request or wish


This is certainly the general understanding of the term, but the Hebrew word “tefillah” has additional nuances that don’t come through in the English.

In his book Six Jewish Spiritual Paths: A Rationalist Look at Spirituality (Jewish Lights, 2000), Rabbi Rifat Sonsino explains that the word תפילה

comes from the verb להתפלל, a reflexive form of the root פ-ל-ל, which means “to judge.” Therefore, at the very basic level, to pray really means “to judge oneself.”

Last night I talked about one of the prominent motifs of Rosh Hashanah, the praise of God as “melekh al kol ha’aretz mekadesh Yisrael v’yom hazikaron” / “Ruler over all the world who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.” Perhaps some of you were surprised at that.  We so often hear it said that Jews don’t talk about God much.  Maybe some of you squirmed in your seats thinking: “I’m here because I’m Jewish and Rosh Hashanah is when we Jews get together and shul is where we get together. So don’t talk to me about God. “ 

Fair enough.   “Jewish Atheist” is not an oxymoron.  We even have a Chasidic teaching on the subject which goes as follows:

There is no quality and there is no power in us that was created to no purpose.  And even base and corrupt qualities can be uplifted to serve God. […] But to what end can the denial of God have been created?  It, too, can be uplifted through deeds of charity.  For if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn that person away with pious words, saying, “Have faith, and take your troubles to God!”  You shall act as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in all the world who could help this person – only yourself.  (quoted in Siddur Hadesh Yameinu, Rabbi Ron Aigen, editor and translator, 1996, p. 332)

Whether we are firm atheists, or assured God-believers, or agnostically floating in-between those two poles – this idea of tefillah as an act of judging ourselves is a common ground on which we can all meet.  As Rabbi Morris Adler teaches:  “Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.” (quoted in Siddur Hadesh Yameinu, Rabbi Ron Aigen, editor and translator, 1996, p. 100)

How, as Jews, DO we pray?  Communal recitation of fixed liturgical texts is a major component of Jewish prayer.  We certainly do our share of those fixed liturgical texts in our High Holiday and Shabbat services.  And when we chant those same words of liturgy as were offered up by our ancestors for two thousand years or more, we connect with the heritage of our people, a connection through which we do indeed find    --- to use the words of the Torah blessing --- “chayei olam nata betocheynu” / “eternal life implanted in our midst.

But it’s also a long-standing custom to incorporate one’s own personal prayers into the silent recitation of the Amidah.  A teaching in the classic text Pirke Avot emphasizes the importance of this personal, individual element with our standardized communal prayers: 

[יג] רבי שמעון אומר, הוי זהיר בקרית שמע ובתפילה; וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע--אלא תחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, שנאמר "כי חנון ורחום, הוא" (יואל ב,יג).

“Rabbi Shimon says: Be careful in reading the Shema and the Amidah prayer, but when you pray, don’t regard your prayer as a fixed mechanical task; rather, as an appeal for mercy and grace before the Blessed Omnipresent One whom scripture says is gracious and full of mercy.” (Avot 2:13)

And of course, we’re not talking about just formal prayer services.  Spontaneous personal prayer --- whenever and wherever we are moved to offer it --- is basic to who we are, not just as Jews but as human beings: 

It reminds me of the popular saying “as long as there are final exams, there will be prayer in schools.”

Our Torah and Haftarah readings this first morning of Rosh Hashanah contain several examples of spontaneous personal prayer that are well worth reflecting upon: 

First of all, there’s the example of Chanah (or Hannah, to use the common English form of that name):  The haftarah portrays Hannah pouring out her heart to God in prayer, distraught at her inability to conceive:    וְחַנָּה, הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל-לִבָּהּ--רַק שְׂפָתֶיהָ נָּעוֹת, וְקוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ עֵלִי, לְשִׁכֹּרָה.  "Behold Hannah was speaking to herself, and only her lips were moving while her voice could not be heard so that Eli (the Priest who was sitting nearby) thought she was drunk" (1 Sam. 1:13) 

Chana’s style of praying would become a quintessential model for Jewish prayer.   As Talmud teaches:    

 אמר רבי יוסי בר חנינא מן הפסוק הזה את למד ד' דברים

א) וחנה היא מדברת על לבה מכאן שהתפילה צריכה כוונה; (ב) רק שפתיה נעות מכאן שהוא צריך להרחיש בשפתותיו ; (ג) וקולה לא ישמע מכאן שלא יגביה אדם את קולו ויתפלל; (ד) ויחשבה עלי לשיכורה מכאן שהשיכור אסור להתפלל

“Said R. Yose bar Haninah: From this verse (1 Sam. 1:13) you learn four things:
(1) “Hannah was speaking in her heart” -- from this you learn that prayer requires kavanah [which we might translate as concentration or intentionality]. (2) “Only her lips moved” -- from this you learn that one must mouth the prayer with one's lips. (3) “And her voice was not heard” -- from this you learn that one may not raise one’s voice and pray. (4) “And Eli took her to be a drunken woman” -- from this you learn a drunken person is forbidden to pray" (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot, 4:1).  (See also Talmud Bavli, Berachot 31a)

According to the contemporary Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, there are other passages in the Talmud that argue about the parameters of Rabbi Yosi Bar Chanina’s teaching that someone who is drunk ought to sober up first before engaging in prayer. (Steinsaltz, Masechet Berachot [Hebrew edition], p.137)  As for the second and third points, the way it was taught to me was that when you davven (pray) individually within a public setting, such as during the individual sections of the Amidah, you should move your lips and pronounce the words distinctly enough so that you can hear yourself saying them, but not loud enough for those standing next to you to hear what you are saying.

All those Talmudic teachings about Hannah’s prayer are interesting – but even more striking is the emotional tone of Hannah’s prayer.  Rabbi Art Green teaches that Hannah's model of prayer shows us that it's valid and desirable to pour one's heart out in prayer, to be emotional ---- including being angry and upset.  Rabbi Green writes:  “The depth and sincerity of Hannah’s prayer became a model for the rabbis.  This apparently included the very strong and seemingly audacious way in which Hannah spoke to both Eli [the Kohen] and God.  The model of prayer offered here is hardly one of submission and entreaty.  Hannah stood up to both human and divine authority, demanding that she be treated justly and recognized as the wronged person she was.”  (Kol Haneshama: Machzor Layamim Nora’im, p. 553).

Similarly, I’m reminded of a teaching I received from, Rabbi Shapiro,  my Hasidic Orthodox Hebrew school teacher at Sea Breeze Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY where I used to go 4 afternoons a week when I was in 4th and 5th grade.  I remember Rabbi Shapiro (I never did learn his first name) teaching us that it's okay to be angry at God; it's just not okay to ignore God.  That one really has stuck with me all these years:  IT'S OKAY TO BE ANGRY AT GOD, IT'S JUST NOT OKAY TO IGNORE GOD…. 


The prayers of both Chana in this morning’s haftarah and Hagar in this morning’s Torah reading each include a strong element of catharsis.  Getting out what you're bottling up inside.  And for Hagar, there is much that has been bottled up.  In Genesis 21 verse 14 it says:  וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע/ “she wandered back and forth.”  She’s in a panic, in a state of crisis and turmoil.  She’s afraid.

It seems to her that her beloved son Ishmael is going to die before her eyes of dehydration -- and that she couldn't be far off from that fate herself.

So, she sets her son down under a bush, and moves a short distance away so that she won’t have to see him die.  Then she bursts out into tears:  The Hebrew word in Genesis ch. 21 verse 16 for bursting into tears is itself ugly and percussive --- almost like the sound of being so nauseous you wanna throw up yet so famished that you have nothing to regurgitate:   וַתֵּבְךְּ    (VATEVK!)

But then a miracle happens:  We read in Genesis 21: 17-19:


The medieval Italian Jewish commentator Sforno explains that the well of water had been there all along but, by opening her eyes, God had given Hagar the ability to notice the well.   We use the same verb in the Birkhot Hashachar, the morning blessings we recited near the beginning of our service today, praising God there as פוקח עורים  / poke’ach ivrim /  “the one who opens the eyes of the blind.” 

I think this is a stunning illustration of the true power of prayer.  The natural laws of the universe do not suddenly get overruled.  However, our prayers do get "answered" when we discover new ways of looking at the world around us.   When we discover that we are not so isolated and alone as we might have thought.  When we recognize that God is with us even when life seems to be at its bleakest.

Is anyone here familiar with the British tv series called "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy?"  I was introduced to  --- and fell in love with -- this classic bit of nerd culture back in the early 1980’s when I was an exchange student in Edinburgh, Scotland for my junior year of college.  My fellow nerds who I hung out with there were mostly atheist physics majors  -- but, still, the Biblical account of Hagar’s prayerful vision reminds me of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all the same. 

You see, the “Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy” is supposed to be this guidebook for cheap and adventurous sightseeing in the universe.  The offscreen omniscient narrator would often remind the viewer as follows: 

"It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because  …  in large, friendly letters on the cover it has the words…….."  (quote revised to leave slogan to the end…)       

(Note:  Here I inserted a dramatic pause….)

I know we have some Anglophiles and science fiction nerds in the house.  So let me ask you:  What were those two words cheerfully emblazoned on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?......

(Note: Here, as expected, several congregation members shouted out the answer, which I then repeated…)


(which by the way is the advice I often give myself when getting ready for the High Holidays!)

Well, it seems to me that Hagar ultimately follows this sound advice  --- DON’T PANIC.

After pacing back and forth for a while she stops wandering around and SITS DOWN.  She pours out her heart to God.   I imagine her then, after the last sobs have convulsed her body, that then, when she's gotten out her cry, that then she takes a deep, long breath.

And then, and only then, God opens her eyes, and she sees the well that had been there all along, but that she had been too panicked to notice.  It is as if a fog has been lifted.

Let me close with one more example of prayer from this morning's Torah service that I think might be the most meaningful portrayal of all:  The prayer of Ishmael.

Now you may say, hey wait a minute, Ishmael isn’t quoted at all in our Torah reading.

But that's the point --- Sometimes we may be so distressed that we don't even have the kuyekh   --- the strength --- to cry out in agony like Hagar, let alone to put our words into the timeless poetry of Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving that concludes the haftarah.   The Torah doesn’t directly describe Ishmael praying to God.  Yet what does the Angel say to Hagar?

אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם./ Don't be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the youth WHERE HE IS.

Our tradition teaches us that God hears us --- WHERE WE ARE --- even if where we are is someplace so painful and scary that can’t even summon up a prayer.   Even if where we are is someplace so confusing that we don’t even really know where we are.   

Indeed, the very first question God poses to a human being in the Torah is God’s question to Adam in Genesis 3:9 --- אַיֶּכָּה. (“Ayekah”)/WHERE ARE YOU?

And that’s ultimately the question that each of asks ourselves during the Yamim Nora’im/ The Days of Awe ---  אַיֶּכָּה / where are you?

There’s a wonderful reading in the old Gates of Prayer siddur that says:

“Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”  (Gates of Prayer: A Gender Sensitive Prayerbook, Chaim Stern Editor, CCAR 1994, p. 75)

However each of us personally experiences God, however each of us personally understands the role and nature of prayer, wherever each of us finds ourselves in life’s journey in this season of personal inventory, repentance and renewal  ---- May our eyes be opened, may our prayers be answered --- and may we be blessed with the ability and the courage to meet our loved ones --- and the strangers we encounter as well --- whenever they cry out to us ---- or even when they are unable to cry out  -- meeting them where THEY are, as God met Ishmael באשר הוא שם (ba’asher hu sham) where  he was.    Faced with life’s challenges and faced with the tasks ahead in the quest “letaken olam bemalchut shaddai“ (“to do tikkun olam to repair the world under God’s sovereign rule”) --- May we be able to return to our better selves, to be present in the world – to say HINENI – Here I am.

L’shana Tovah Tekatevu/  May you be inscribed for a good year – and may 5773 be shanah tovah u’metukah  --- a good and SWEET year for us, for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth.

And whatever challenges come our way just remember – take a deep breath – open your eyes – and don’t panic.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2012


Posted on October 9, 2012 .