Introduction: What is a Prayer, and how it affects us.
On Rosh HaShanah the Jewish People celebrate (repentance and prayers are among the ways traditions of the holiday) the creation of the World. God created the universe with a spoken word: “ויאמר אלוהים – God said”. This phrase repeats itself 10 times in Genesis Chapter 1. Our tradition tells us that (Genesis 1:27) “God created humankind in His figure (walking in His shadow), creating them, male and female, in the Image of God”. Hence, our words fashion our world, just as God’s words fashioned the universe. Based on an old Chinese sage teaching, I would say that “Our prayers are Our words. Our words become our actions; Our actions become Our habits; These habits show Our character; Our character becomes Our destiny”.
The conscious articulation of our thoughts in the form of words shapes our actions. We say and promise that we will do one thing or another, we respond in words to other human beings. These words can encourage, empower and lift up their spirits. Or, God Forbid, insult and humiliate them. Others perceive our character according to the intent they associate with our words and actions, which eventually shape our destiny.
Words that form prayers and blessings may not change the reality of the Universe. However, they do change our own feelings and the way we respond to what happens around us. Words don’t convince some God out there to change our reality. There is no “magic wand” that will change the overarching course of events of the Universe. Rather, they shape the way we see our reality and thus may change reality itself, changing our own world. When we pray, we are more likely to change ourselves through the actions that we perform. These actions influence our surroundings and community, ultimately causing the actual change of the Micro-Universe around us.
When we pray for peace, we don’t expect that peace between Palestinians and Israelis will happen all of the sudden. Praying for peace will more likely bring us to act more peacefully in our everyday life.
When we pray for the healing of someone, we may wish that God would miraculously change the course of events. However, that’s not how it happens in life; our prayer works in two ways.
The first is sending positive energy and strengthening the spirit of the person we are praying for. In turn, that person builds up hope, resulting with the ability to face the challenges that are ahead. Believe me, I am experiencing it now, as we speak. Your prayers and energy you send my way strengthen me to withstand the health challenges I am facing these days. And if you seek for a scientific proof that it works, there are quite a few studies that prove this.
The second way our own prayers for someone’s healing work is by motivating us to take action. Visiting and providing for those we name in our prayer lift and strengthen that individual and their family. Making a donation – “putting your money where your mouth is” – is yet another way to act upon one’s prayer. Donating to organizations that helps sick people, a synagogue with a Bikur Ḥolim (Checking on the Sick) is another way. Or even make financial contribution to that person you pray for, to help defraying the costs of medical care. Our words in prayer make us more aware of our concerns, and then transform that awareness into actions.
In essence, what I am saying is that many things that happen in our lives are out of our hands. Luck, fortunate events, and just as well diseases, other bad things, and eventually even death, are out of our control. How we respond to those happenings, how we perceive and experience our lives is totally in our own hands. That also includes how we affirm life in the midst of suffering, in the depths of illness and even in the face of death.
Additional Meanings to “Pray”, “Prayer” in Hebrew
In Hebrew, “to pray” is L’hitpalel, “prayer” is T’fillah. The root of this verb and associated words is פ.ל.ל. – F-L-L. Another conjugation of this root means “to hope”. Indeed, it makes sense: when we pray, we hope that our prayer will be accepted and answered. Biblical use of this root also means Judges, Trial, Sentence, Judgement (Isiah 16:3, Exodus 21:22). It only stands for reason that today’s use of this root also means Criminal (e.g. criminal court, criminal lawyer) and To Incriminate.
Our prayers in general and much more so during the High Holidays include all these elements: confession and self-incrimination, trial and judgement, plea and hope, accountability and acceptance of the outcome.
The essence of “Unetaneh Tokef” – We ratify the sanctity of this Day
The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer is arguably one of the cornerstones of the High Holidays Liturgy. The only occasions I saw my father cry, was during this prayer, when I stood next to him in synagogue. He had other very good reasons to cry; yet, he didn’t cry during memorial services for his two fallen sons. Unetaneh Tokef contains sentences through which we envision God as the Ultimate Supreme Judge. He assigns every all creature, angels and each and every one of us alike, to a “good”, “Acquitted”, or “bad”, “Guilty”, destiny. We chant “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”. We ask: “Who shall live, and who shall die?”, “Who in hunger, and Who by thirst? and so on. The face value of these verses fosters the feeling that we have no role in our destiny.
Well, there may be an apparent contradiction between the above theorem and the feeling instilled in us through this prayer. I’d like to suggest a slightly different reading, active tense rather than passive, that may resolve this contradiction. “Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will be the one to write my own Book of Life”.
It is in our own hands to answer those questions in this prayer. Putting on a mask in public, getting the vaccines and following the relevant guidelines we save lives from COVID-19 pandemic. Donating to foodbanks and feeding the unfortunate people, we avoid the suffer of hunger and thirst from those in need. And the list, obviously, goes on and on.
We sing together: “Avinu Malkenu, ḥata-nu L’faneikha – Our Father, Our King, we have sinned in front of You, in Your Face”. With this statement, along with all other similar declarations, we incriminate ourselves. We admit out load, in public, in front of all these witnesses, to our transgressions.
Assuming accountability over our transgressions is almost an automatic outcome of the confession and self-incrimination in our prayer. It leads to yet another important element: remorse. When we regret an action we did, a saying we uttered, we ask for forgiveness. We are prepared to take actions to mend the harm we did. We accept the outcome whatever it may be.
Regret also means that had we known the impact of our deed, we most likely wouldn’t have done it to begin with. We had no intent to harm and yet, that deed caused different outcomes than those we intended them to be.
In another keystone prayer of the High Holidays, the “Kol Nidrei”, we officially declare, in front of the Bet Din – the court – this remorse: B’kulhon Eeḥaratna B’hon, Kulhon y’hon Sharan. I hereby regret all vows I have made; they are all null and void.
Prayer and remorse pave the way to bestowing upon the People the verse (Numbers 15:26):
The whole community of the People of Israel and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire People through error and without full intent
וְנִסְלַ֗ח לְכׇל עֲדַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֣ר בְּתוֹכָ֑ם כִּ֥י לְכׇל הָעָ֖ם בִּשְׁגָגָֽה
With this perspective and the deep meaning of Prayer, we are now triggered to better exercise the gift of free will God gave us and make better choices. When we pray in this way, with this intent and understanding, we are more likely to change ourselves through actions. Our actions in turn will affect our community and those around us, and ultimately cause the change of reality.
The deeper meaning of Repentance, Prayer and Righteous Deeds.
This sentence, taken out of e very same prayer, offers us a path how to conduct our lives forward:
Ut’shuvah Ut’fillah Utz’dakah mMa-avirin Et Ro-ah HaG’zera
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִילָה וצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֵת רוֹעַ הַגְזֵרָה
“T’shuva – repentance, T’fillah – prayer, and Tz’dakah – charity and acts of lovingkindness, mitigate the severity of the decree.”
The decree, death, is already known and shall happen to all of us. The severity of the decree is not the eventual dying one way or another. It is how we will feel when we get there, the result of stocktaking of all that we have done.
T’fillah, prayer, is our words that shaping our views, thoughts and perspectives. The root of this Hebrew word is also used – in different conjugation – to incriminate someone or oneself. It also means something criminal, may it be a Criminal Court, or a Criminal Lawyer that defends Criminals.
When we pray to the King of Kings of the Universe, we humble ourselves. First and foremost, knowingly or not, we incriminate ourselves for our shortcomings, our wrongdoings. We also recognize the power of God and our lack of that power. We bless the Almighty and by that also express our gratitude to whatever has befallen on us. As we pray, we also direct our prayer to our own self-sovereign, that “entity” within our very core. The inner voice that guides us to act and pursue our purpose, that tells us what to do.
Tz’dakah – Righteous Deeds, charity and acts of lovingkindness – is actually a way to convert our words into action. Charity, donating money and tangibles is important; however, doing only that actually misses the main point of Tz’dakah. Tz’dakah is also the acts of lovingkindness. When you give money to a poor homeless person, look them in the eyes and ask what they need most. The response you may get could be gratitude in intensity and sincerity that you may have never experienced before. Tz’dakah is also volunteering your talents and expertise to your community and then to the human race at large. By these actions of Tz’dakah you also express your gratitude for Creation. Surprisingly (or not) it will make you feel good, elated and joyous as you reconnect with your soul.
T’shuva is repentance but not only. Hebrew is an interesting language, based on two or three letter combinations called roots. Each root can be than conjugated in different ways, producing different meanings; however, these meanings are related to each other. Teshuva, in addition to repentance, it is also returning and is also an answer. Closely related root that sound very similar, though different, means to sit, to cease of doing something.
All these together, create a sense of meditation: sitting down, focusing on one thing by doing nothing else, and pondering. Looking for an answer to a question, to an inner debate. And the answer may be found by turning around and going back to the origin. To that fork on the paths forward where one made a choice, probably not the best one. To the pure origin of our faith, our tradition, which may be different to each and every one of us. There we may find answers, a path we might have missed in the past, one that we now will follow.
Surely, that answer is not where one is at this point. This prayer helps one to have the resolve and ability to walk back to that place where the answer is. Once there, take the action, turn to the other fork on that crossroads and follow it forward. The trial will happen, when similar past circumstances, that made us act in the way we now regret, reappear. Continuing to be the New Me, following the new path and not reverting to old habits, is the complete T’shuva.
The above verse looks to me as a mathematical equation: T’fillah (Prayer) Plus Tz’dakah (Righteous Deeds) EQUALS the complete T’shuva (repentance). This T’shuva will make yourself feel whole, holy and help in mitigating the severity of the decree.
I held a series of two conversations with Father Joel Maiorano during the High Holidays Season of 2020 at the Rouge Valley Manor in Medford. These conversations provide additional perspective about forgiveness, repentance, prayer and how the sound of Shofar (Ram’s Horn) helps with the cleansing of the soul.