Rabbi David Walk
In case you haven't noticed, there's a lot of praying on the High Holidays. I remember when I used to spend a lot of time checking how many pages were left to the davening, especially during Musaf. It made a big difference if the English pages were numbered separately or not. This behavior is basically based on a mind-set that the purpose of tefila is just to get it over with. Often the act of prayer is seen as another daily chore. It's a good task, but it still must be checked off my to-do list, like brushing my teeth or taking a shower. However, I've grown out of that negative and immature approach to prayer. That's so last year. This year I'm committed to a new approach and it's based on something I saw in Rav Kook's introduction to his commentary on the sidur, Olat Re'iah. I not only appreciated his advice on prayer in general, but I believe that his advice can be applied directly to Rosh Hashanah.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) was among the most influential Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. He began his guidance for tefila with the following words, 'Before one prays, one must feel the necessity and enjoyment of prayer.' Okay, I've got the requirement aspect, but am missing the enjoyment part. He goes on to explain two critical ideas. First, in our prayers we recognize God's perfection, therefore we can't be praying to move or change God. Second, we should realize that prayer is a marvelous (nifla) obligation because it helps to perfect us. A great prayer doesn't affect God; it improves us.
Then in section 6 of this guide Rav Kook brings up the issue I want to discuss. He quotes the famous rabbinic statement that the Patriarchs instituted prayer; Avraham shacharit, the morning prayer, Yitzchak mincha the afternoon prayer, Ya'akov ma'ariv the evening prayer. He then quotes the three verses which support this contention: Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord (Genesis 19:23), Isaac went forth to converse in the field towards evening (24:63), (Ya'akov) arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set (28:11). There are three different verbs to describe prayer, amida or standing, sicha or conversing, p'giah or arriving, perhaps, confronting. These represent three goals of prayer within the service of God.
The first issue is to contemplate the holiness embedded in the world and in me, and to discover that this a bulwark against destructive forces. We take this 'stand' first thing in the morning, before the vicissitudes of the world have negatively impacted me. Later in the day, we can ponder the developments in the world and how they affect me. Rav Kook believes that the term sicha is related to vegetation and growth. The afternoon is a good time to examine my place in the flow of events, sifting through experiences for wheat or chaff. And, finally, Rav Kook, quoting from the Tur (Orach Chaim, 98), declares that through prayer one can attain an extremely high spiritual level, approaching prophecy. This is called arriving (pog'im) at levels greater than the natural course of existence. This can be achieved through the rest and meditation one can attain during the quiet of evening as we prepare for sleep. We can forgive Rav Kook his lack of knowledge of Israeli night life. Tel Aviv-Yafo was different then. but it's still true that before drifting off to sleep we can achieve very high spiritual levels with a little meditative technique.
There you have it. Shachrit standing in awe of the holiness of our world before setting out into the storm, mincha growing with the day's development and putting them into perspective, and ma'ariv arriving at a sublime state as the day ebbs. Isn't it wonderful? Thank you, Rav Kook. But what does it have to do with Rosh Hashanah? Actually, everything. The central performance of Rosh Hashanah is the recitation of Musaf accompanied by the Blowing of the Shofar. The blowing of the Shofar before Musaf (kolot d'myushav) was a later development. The Shofar's cry underscores the message of this service which our Sages compiled to give us food for thought during the blasts. And what is the essence of this material? The tripartite structure is: malchiyot God's powerful kingship, zichronot memories of our relationship, and shofrot the historic role of the Shofar to usher in seminal events.
What is the message of malchiyot? Before we conclude this blessing, we proclaim: Rule over the whole universe in Your Glory...Appear in the majesty of Your splendid might. Sounds like what one should ponder at Shacharit. What is the message of Zichronot? There we state: Remember on our behalf our predecessors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. And remember the Covenant, the kindness and the promises. In other words, allow us to see all historical developments in the light of our eternal relationship with You. Isn't that what we should contemplate at Mincha, to put every occurrence into perspective? What is the message of Shofrot? There we declare: Lift a banner to gather the exiles, and fulfill for us all that You promised to our ancestors. Pretty much the idea of the perfect world we dream about at Ma'ariv. Rav Kook's ideas for our daily prayers are expressed in the triple blessings of Rosh Hashana's Musaf service.
Sadly, prayer often degenerates into rote recitation of strings of pointless phrases. It doesn't have to be that way. Just like Rav Kook said, we should contemplate the critical concepts on our minds during our daily prayers, those ideas get refreshed during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah. This year don't count down the pages. Look at the text, and think about the ideas embedded in the structure of the liturgy. Make this the year that praying comes to life in your mind and soul. You can stand (omed) in awe of the ideas, while growing (si'ach) through its stages, and arrive (poge'a) at a blissful experience. Shana Tova!!