Erev Rosh HaShanah: Prayer and the VERY REAL Possibility of Change

Erev Rosh HaShanah: Prayer and the VERY REAL Possibility of Change

Shabbat Shalom! Shanah tovah!! Gut Yontiff!

Hineynu – Here we all are. Hineini – Here I am.

I know that this isn’t what the High Holy Days usually look like at CBSRZ, let alone in any synagogue.

And, yet, here we are.

Early in our service, Cantor Belinda chanted the prayer, Hin’ni – Here I am – a traditional declaration of clergy readiness,

tinged with nervousness, for our prayer service. And here we all are, perhaps feeling the same way. We are inventing something for the very first time in Jewish history, and how often do you get to say that???

None of us has been quite sure what to expect from services this year, some of us are so sad not to be with our friends, our family members, our congregational family. We’re not sure how we feel about all these little boxes in front of us, and yet – Hineynu.

We are here.

The New Year is here.

Time has moved on;

and 5781 is here.

Despite the challenges, despite all the ways the world has turned upside down, I’m so proud of us for gathering together tonight. My heart is warmed in so many ways when I think of how many barriers there have been and might have been that could have prevented us from praying together. We see each other’s faces and can look into each other’s eyes.

We Jews have somehow always heard God’s call, and we’ve answered, through innumerable times of fear, persecution,  plague, fires, upheaval – Hineynu – Here we are. Hineini – Here I am.

We have been blessed with a tech team here at CBSRZ who have been so generous to sacrifice their own prayer time and space in order to facilitate prayer for the rest of the community, and we are grateful for them all!  And, God, even if we cannot pray together in person, You have gifted humanity with the intelligence to create this remarkable technology which allows us to pray tonight as one community through these wires, devices, signals, and satellites.

Just as our Matriarchs and Patriarchs heard You in Biblical times, we mark this First Day of 5781 together. We hear Your annual wakeup call.

Yes, the ancient sounds of the shofar awaken us, And we hear the call to return, to reconnect, and to remember who we are deep within our souls.

This Holy Day has many names – not just Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. It is also

Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance.

Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment.

Yom Teruah – the Day of the Shofar’s Call.

Collectively, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yamim Noraim

The Days of Awe.

There are not many things that produce in us a pure sense of awe. If you are like me, you may use the word “Awesome” in your daily speech, but rarely with a true feeling of something being full of awe. Awe seems to contain within it something…. majestic….holy…. and even amazement. I think the key to this season, and the place it holds in so many of our lives, lies in this word: Awe. And we feel a sense of wonder…. some amount of trepidation…. And, yes, even a bit of dread, at this time of year.


Because this time of year, more than any other, and perhaps 2020 even more so – Contains the VERY REAL possibility of change. Making a deep, meaningful change in our lives is terrifying, and we aren’t often ready to make the leap that it requires.

We face judgment – not just from God, but even more dramatically, from ourselves. We are given the space, every single year, to examine ourselves, and to ponder the direction of our lives. These Holy Days exist because of an assumption that we can ALWAYS try again, that we can always fine tune our behavior and our choices, and that humanity can continue to make the world better.

But how do we this? Where do we begin? We come back each year to our congregational family, back to these holy words, back to these melodies. Are we just going through the motions? Are we here just to check off a little box that we showed up? No, I don’t believe that. I believe, instead, that when we embody Hineynu each year, we acknowledge that these Holy Days call us to return to our souls’ most pure purpose. We recognize the opportunity for something awesome in the New Year.

We encounter it, we stand at the precipice, and we face the deepest possibilities at work within us.

Our prayers mention Sefer HaChayim, the Book of Life. They suggest that God has a very large book, and in it are written all of our names. As I child, I imagined God with a very large quill, and God would write our names down during this  season. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written.” Though our “fate” is presumably written down on Rosh Hashanah, we remember that we have until Yom Kippur before the Book of Life is sealed, and the Gates of Repentance are closed. That gives us ten days – these next ten days, to make these choices. Now, I don’t believe that God actually has a big book up there, like Santa Claus, determining whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Yet this Book of Life is a stirring metaphor – a reminder of the very real ramifications of our deeds and actions on how the coming year will look for us and our loved ones.

After the machzor text reminds us about the Book of Life, and its columns of “who shall live and who shall die,” we are then given important information: Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah – Translated as “A return to the right path, prayer and righteous giving”[1] – Help us to transcend the harshness of the decree.

Teshuvah. Tefillah. Tzedakah.

We teach and speak a lot about the Teshuvah, the repentance, part. And Tzedakah, giving righteously, in order to balance the injustices in our world, is not that abstract. But prayer… prayer can feel so elusive for so many of us. I mean, we sit or stand here for all the days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but what are we REALLY doing here over these days? How is prayer supposed to impact our actions in the coming year?

When we say “Here we are” – what is it that we are really HERE for? 

Tefilah is the Hebrew word for prayer. A b’rachah is an individual blessing, but Tefilah is the overall concept of prayer. All Hebrew words have a root word within them which gives us more clues as to their meaning. The root word of Tefilah is palel – which means “to judge.” But the infinitive of to pray is “l’hitpalel” – a verb construct that is reflexive – meaning you do it to yourself. So, if “to pray” in Hebrew is l’hitpalel, And palel means, “to judge,” then l’hitpalel means, “To judge yourself.” In this sense, prayer is not something you do to God. It is something that you do to yourself.

We’ve got to let this idea marinate for a moment.

We think so often about prayer being something that we perform outward, out towards God. Yet, as Rabbi Michael Gold writes,

“Prayer connects us to the spiritual dimension of life. And through that spiritual connection, we can change ourselves. In other words, prayer is a way to change us.”[2]

It’s so easy to disconnect from the divine soul that dwells within each and every one of us. Yet this time of year invites us to reconnect  – it allows us to check in with ourselves on a very deep, very real level. There is a wisdom inside of us that knows whether or not we are on the right path, and whether or not it is time to do something differently in our lives.

Of course, many of us just don’t like change. Things may actually be just where we’ve wanted them to be. Others may see the need for transformation, but lack the audacity to take the first steps. There is also the lure of inertia – it gets so comfy it that cozy spot.

There is a story about Reb Zussya, who was sitting and studying the Talmud. Reb Zussya’s students once looked over his shoulders and saw him studying a certain page of the Gemara. The next day, they saw their rabbi was studying the identical page. The following week, they saw him on the same page still! It bothered them and they finally questioned him. “How come you are on the same page?!” To which Reb Zussya responded, “It feels so good here, why should I go elsewhere?”[3]

The Days of Awe are meant to interrupt our lives, to disrupt our routines. To show us that, though it might feel “good here,” we must avoid closing ourselves off to new challenges or opportunities.

It can feel overwhelming – but, that’s the beauty of it– we’re in it together. We come back here each year because it’s awesome, it’s possible, and we have annual opportunities to try again.

This year, I pray, that we all stand on the precipice of change, and, instead of backing up in hesitation, may we proudly pronounce – Hineini – Here I am! and walk forward with hope, confidence, and self-awareness. May we reconnect with our souls, may we make the changes that we are ready to make, and may we reach out to those in need around us. And, thus, may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good, new year.


[1] Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR Press), p. 180.
[2] Elkins, Dov Peretz, ed. Rosh Hashanah Readings. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006. P. 97.
[3] Ibid, p. 216.


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