As a child the most notable reality of my Rosh Hashanah experience was the length of the davening. My memories of six and seven-hour services were generally not great. However, with maturity grew an understanding of the prayers and, with it, a greater appreciation for these meaningful pleas to God. Plus, in Eretz Yisrael. I’ve found more streamlined services, coming in under four hours, bringing hope for the ADD afflicted. But ultimately, we should be less concerned with the quantity of prayer and more with its quality, and that’s where Chana comes in.
Our Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of the prophet Shmuel’s mother Chana and her supplication to God for a child. Her inspiring prayer (Shmuel I 2:1-10) is credited with molding the Musaf service conceived by our Sages. The Talmud asks: What was the stimulus for having nine blessings in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf? Rabbi Yitzchak of Carthage said: They correspond to the nine mentions of God’s name in Chana’s prayer (Rosh Hashanah 29a).
So, the Sages of antiquity saw something stirring and significant in the ten verses which make up her prayer. What did they notice? Well, some of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah. The core ideas of Rosh Hashanah revolve around the three concepts of God’s Kingship over the world, which is an outgrowth of the act of Creation (MALCHIYOT); God’s Justice (Yom Hadin), which is based upon God’s perfect recollection of every human action and every covenant forged with the Patriarchs and the people (ZICHRONOT); and, finally, God’s Revelation to the Jewish People, both at Har Sinai and, in the future appearance of Mashiach, which are heralded by SHOFAR blasts (SHOFAOT).
What did Chana say? ‘My horn (KEREN) is raised in pride’ (verse 1) hints at the SHOFAR. ‘For my joy is in Your salvation’ (verse 1), also a SHOFAR theme. ‘There is no Rock like our God’ (verse 2) declares God as ruler and king (MALCHIYOT). ‘For the Lord is an all-knowing God; by Him actions are measured’ (verse 3), this clearly refers to God as the Judge with perfect recall (ZICHRONOT). We’ve already got the three major themes of the day.
But Chana wasn’t done. ‘The Lord deals death and gives life…He casts down. He also lifts high’ (verses 6-7), also God as judge. ‘For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s; He has set the world upon them’ (8), God as Creator. ‘The wicked perish in darkness’ (verse 9), God as judge. Finally, ‘The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; He will grant His own king strength, and raise the horn of Mashiach’ (verse 10), this references all three themes: remembering Judge, King, and the SHOFAR blast of the final Redemption.
Phew! Got it all covered. There is another reason for including Chana in the Rosh Hashana liturgy. Rosh Hashanah is about birth and Creation. In the repetition of the Musaf prayer we chant: Today is the birth of the Universe! This concept is also expressed through the institution of Motherhood, especially when the mother had previously been barren. This emphasizes the miraculous involvement of God in the wonder of birth. We don’t only read about Chana. We also discuss Sarah in both the Torah reading for the first day and in Musaf. The Haftorah for the Second Day is all about Rachel. The tradition is that these three famously barren women conceived on Rosh Hashanah.
But I don’t even think we’ve yet arrived at the central reason that we read this moving prayer on Rosh Hashanah. I think it’s because Chana teaches us how to pray (Berachot 31a). She taught us to pray silently with our lips reverently mouthing the precious words (1:13). The Malbim suggests that she taught us four critical prerequisites for great praying:
1. She was broken hearted and Hashem hears those prayers, 2. She prayed with full intention to Hashem Himself 3. She cried, and the gates of tears are never closed. 4. She took upon herself a specific commitment that should help get her through this painful time.
Excellent! Chana’s course in Prayer 101. This combination of clear expression and personal vow is very instructive, but there is another crucial element. Chana’s prayer discusses God beating back the Jews’ foes, God feeding the hungry, God punishing the evil as well as giving children to the barren. Great prayers are also empathetic. We pray for others as well as ourselves.
The Magen Avraham introduces section 46 of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim with the words: Before morning prayers one should accept themselves the positive commandment of, ‘And you shall love your fellow (commonly rendered ‘neighbor’) as yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18).
Rosh Hashanah is about davening; therefore, I can’t leave this discussion without referring to another Chana, who also taught an amazing prayer concept. Chana Senesh (1922-1944) was not only a war hero killed by Nazi supporters; she was a poet. After she made ALIYA in 1939, she lived in Kibbutz S’dot Yam, next to Caesaria. She wrote a poem ostensibly about hers walks to Caesaria:
My God, my God,
I pray that these things never end:
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens,
The prayer of the heart.
What a prayer! Avraham Yehoshua Heschel famously said that it’s foolish to ask what to pray for. We pray to pray. Prayer isn’t a means; it’s an end. Just being in communication with God is a GEVALT! What else can we possibly want or need?
I hope, wish and pine for a Rosh Hashanah which is filled with prayerful conversation with God, no matter how long those services may stretch. Shana Tova U’Metuka!