"Searching for the Words"

The Ba’al Shem Tov told a story of the High Holidays. It is a well-known story, with many different versions – as any good story should have. It is the story of a young boy and her flute.

This boy, Meir, was an orphan. Alone, Meir was forced to find a way to support himself. He found work when he could and begged when he couldn’t. Finally, after several years, he found employment as the shepherd for a kind, wealthy family in his village, and lived in their barn.

A few weeks after he began working for this family, they invited Meir to come with them to celebrate the New Year at the village synagogue. Meir had not been inside the synagogue since his parents died, years earlier. He barely remembered what it looked like. Curious, he accepted. Meir was excited to be a part of the holiday, praying to God for forgiveness of his sins.

He wanted reassurance that the year to come would be better than the years that had passed. That he would finally be secure and well-fed. That the family would be kind to him, and perhaps treat him like a son.

Sitting down with the family, Meir was handed a prayerbook, but he did not open it, since he couldn’t read the Hebrew of the prayers. Through the service, Meir sat, feeling more and more uncomfortable. He wanted to sing, but did not know the words or the melodies. He wanted to demonstrate his reverence, but did not know when to stand up or sit down. He felt that everyone was watching and judging him for his ignorance. Finally, the service ended, and Meir returned home with the family. The same thing happened the next day. Meir was disappointed as he left the synagogue that day, convinced that he had missed his chance in life to learn how to pray.

A week went by, and the family invited him to join them at synagogue in observance of Yom Kippur. This time, he refused. He did not want to sit in that big, cavernous sanctuary, the only one who was not praying, the only one who did not understand what was happening and why. He told the family that he needed to take the sheep out to the pasture. He thanked them for the invitation and watched as they walked off, together.

All day with the sheep, Meir thought about what was happening in the synagogue without him. He was jealous of all the people who knew more than he did and were able to pray to God the correct way. He was sad that he did not know the right words to express his gratitude for the kind family, or his regret over the things he had done wrong while he was living on his own. He longed for the right words – but did not know them.

Finally, as night fell, Meir gave up trying to find the words, and pulled out the small flute that he carried with him whenever he was out with the sheep. He began to play. He poured everything he was feeling into the music. All of his hopes and fears. All of his gratitude and regret. When he finished, he thought to himself, “If only I could pray the right way, like all of the people in the synagogue.”

What Meir didn’t know, was that sitting in the synagogue, in the pews with their prayerbooks, the people of the village were not praying. They were thinking about the delicious break-fast that was waiting for them when they got home. They were thinking about the work that they were missing by being in synagogue. They were comparing themselves to the people sitting around them.

As the day went on, the rabbi had a vision of the gates of heaven, already closed and locked against the empty prayers of the community. The rabbi was worried and sought to lift up the community together in prayer and in song. But still, the gates remained locked. Finally, just as the day was ending, he saw the gates of heaven fling open, unlocked by the music of a flute. The rabbi could not understand what had happened, but he was relieved to see that the prayers of the community were accepted and they were forgiven for their sins of the past year. As the rabbi blew the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur, he was grateful for such a heartfelt prayer as the one that threw open the gates of heaven.

We read of another type of prayer in the haftarah this morning. Like so many in the Bible, Hannah struggled to have a child. This lack tormented her. Her husband sought to comfort her, but words could not fill the hole in her life.

This is a pain that is familiar, a pain that continues to afflict many. Many in this sanctuary today know from personal experience the pain that Hannah felt; those who have not felt it directly have family and friends who have struggled to create the family that they desire.

Hannah was unable to endure her pain any longer. She sought the only intervention available to her: she prayed. Hannah begged and pleased with God. She knew precisely the deepest need of her soul and she was able it put it into words:

“O LORD of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your servant and will remember me and not forget Your servant, and if You will grant Your servant a child, I will dedicate him to the LORD for all the days of his life”

Hannah’s prayer is a model for us all, not because of its content, but because of its form. While those were the words in her heart, the text tells us that she did not say anything aloud. Her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. The great rabbis of our tradition looked to Hannah when establishing the proper form for the Amidah. They determined that this is the model to which we should all aspire.

Indeed, we are told that this is the way in which we are meant to pray the silent Amidah, with full intention and focus on every word. Because we are not speaking to the people around us in those moments, we say the words silently, a private conversation between each of us and God.

It is rare gift for me to find myself in the position of Hannah: self-aware to the point that I can clearly and forcefully articulate my deepest prayers. This is something to which I aspire. It is something that I seek out in my prayer practice, I work to discern it in moments of introspection. Sometimes I am rewarded with a flash of insight. But not always.

Much of the time, it is difficult to express the deepest longings of my heart. It is nearly impossible to reduce them to mere words, with a beginning and an end. Sometimes, in moments like this, I comfort myself with the words of Psalm 65: לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה – To you, silence is praise. I may not be able to find the words, but my silence also has value. Rashi goes one step further in interpreting this verse. He writes: “Silence is tribute to You, since there is no end to your praise. And one who overwhelms with praise falls short.” Rather than babbling on in search of the right words, it is sometimes better to fall silent.

The ancient rabbis knew that finding the right words and entering into the appropriate spiritual space is difficult. This is why, in the same section of the Talmud that they present Hannah as the ideal model for prayer, they tell us of the חסידים הראשונים. These “early pious ones” would spend an hour preparing themselves before they began praying. The message here seems to be that we should wait to pray until the thoughts and words are clear to us.

Our goal, the Rabbis tell us, is to pray in the model of Hannah. They teach that just as Hannah’s attention was exclusively on God and her request, so too, we must be perfectly focused when we pray. Our need should be clearly in mind. Such kavvanah – such intentionality – takes effort, which is what the preparation of the “early pious ones” is meant to help achieve. By meditating on our prayers and our needs, we can hope to achieve the clarity of Hannah.

Focus and self-awareness are the goals that the Rabbis emphasize as necessary for an ideal prayer experience. While this is ideal, we learn from no less a figure than משה רבנו – Moses, our teacher – that sometimes such prayer is impossible.

We read in ספר דברים, the Book of Deuteronomy of Moses’ struggle to accept God’s decree that he will not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel. Despite the decades of selfless service to the Israelites, he does not merit to enter the Promised Land. It is easy to imagine the anguish that Moses felt when he contemplated his fate.

A surface reading of these verses is powerful, revealing desperate emotion. Moses shares with us his pain when he says: וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל־ה' בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר - I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying – His response was more than a request. It was more than an argument or a negotiation. Moses sought a gift from God, an unearned favor. He needed God to change the decree. So that he could enter the land, to enjoy the reward that was the goal of the last 40 years of his life.

The Torah is clear: Moses begged. This is a deep and heartfelt prayer. Like Hannah, he knew what he needed, deep in his soul and sought Divine help making it a reality.

As powerful as that surface reading is, the Kedushat Levi – an 18th century rabbi – read the text of the Torah here differently, giving us a deeper sense of how prayer can function in our lives. He notes that the final word of the verse, “לאמר” – saying – is, technically, superfluous. The verse would be clear and coherent without it. Unless it means something completely different. The Kedushat Levi explains that we can also read the verse “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, that I could say…”

Moses’ prayer is not to enter the Promised Land, but rather to be able to express the deepest longing of his heart. He was not saying “Please, God, let me enter the Land,” but rather “Please, God, let me find the strength and the words to tell you what I need.” Put simply, Moses was praying to be able to pray.

We open every Amidah with words from Psalm 51: אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ – “My God, open my lips and my mouth will speak your praise.” I have always loved this image. The words of praise and prayer are there, they are inside of me, in my heart and in my soul, on the tip of my tongue. But I cannot get them out. There is a block, a barrier keeping me from expressing my innermost thoughts. But if God could just open my lips – even just a crack –the words would come pouring out.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes all I need is the smallest push. The right tune. The right image. The right thought or intention. But sometimes it doesn’t.

This is the wisdom of the words that come at the end of the Amidah also from the Psalms. יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי־פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ – “May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You.” I pray that You accept the words of my mouth, the prayers that I have been able to put into words. More than that, I also pray that You accept the meditations of my heart. Accept the prayers that I was unable to articulate – because I was embarrassed to name them, because I was ashamed to feel them, because I didn’t even know that they were there. Please, accept those prayers, too.

Most of the time, this is enough.

On a regular weekday or even on Shabbat, it is enough to know that while I have tried to discern and express my needs as prayers, I probably didn’t dig all the way down. It is likely that I have deeper needs that I was unable to put into words or even recognize. Most days, though, that is enough.

But not on Rosh Hashanah.

On Rosh Hashanah, I need to try harder. If I truly want to take an honest accounting – not of the year that has passed, but of who I was in that year and who I want to be in this year that we begin today – then I need to dig all the way down to the foundation and find the hopes and fears that push me forward and hold me back.

This is why these two verses from the Psalms come together in the Repetition of the Musaf Amidah. Just before the central additions for Rosh Hashanah (Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot), Avinoam will recite אוחילה לקל. This prayer is designed to remind him – to remind each of us – that today, we must strive to bring together the words that we say aloud and the deepest meditations of our hearts.

That search, the attempt to discover and articulate our deepest needs and hopes and fears is prayer. This prayer is some of the most difficult and most important work that we can do on these Holy Days. As we prepare for this work, we can model ourselves on the prayer of משה רבנו – our teacher, Moses. May we all be blessed with the ability to express ourselves in prayer.