Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

The Tefillah of Rosh Hashanah

It’s so nice to be able to prepare for a beautiful Young Israel of Oceanside Yamim Noraim davening without having to worry about seating people in a location other than 150 Waukena Avenue.  This pandemic perhaps has taught us to appreciate the most basic things in life, like actually having a shul in which we all can daven.  Prayer is one of the most significant features of the Yamim Noraim season, and yet it probably is one of the most challenging aspects of our holiday ritual.  How can we help ourselves create the mindset that when we daven during this auspicious time, our tefillot can become passionate rendezvous with God such that we can truly pray with fervor and intentionality?  Perhaps we should reconsider the underlying goal of our tefillot during this holiday season.

In Masechet Rosh Hashanah 11a, the Gemara states that on Rosh Hashana, God remembered three barren women, Sarah, Rachel and Channah, as they conceived on that day.  Specifically, thought, the Gemara in Brachot 29a states that we recite nine brachot for the mussaf tefillah of Rosh Hashana to correspond to the nine times that the name of God is mentioned in Channah’s prayer to God.  As mentioned, God remembered three women on Rosh Hashanah and yet our Rosh Hashana prayer corresponds specifically to the prayer of Channah.  Why is that?

I think that the reason why we connect the prayer of Channah to the Rosh Hashanah davening is that Channah’s prayer that is referenced is fundamentally different than any prayer that Sarah or Rachel may have offered.  Channah prays twice in the Navi, in both Chapter One and Chapter Two of Sefer Shmuel.  Channah’s Chapter One prayer is her prayer before she had a child, but that is not the prayer that is connected to the Rosh Hashanah davening.  Channah’s Chapter Two prayer is her prayer after Shmuel is born and that is the prayer that is connected to the Rosh Hashana davening.

In Chapter One of Sefer Shmuel, the Navi describes how Channah has been coming with her husband for almost twenty years to the mishkan to offer sacrifices to God.  Not only is Channah using that opportunity to pray to God to have a child, but she also sees the lack of spiritual leadership of her people and how it’s affecting the people.  As Sefer Shoftim attests, it is a culture of “ish kol ha’yashar b’einav yaaseh,” that everyone does what he or she wants, because effective leadership is missing.  Channah is deeply pained by this, so she makes the following promise.  She says that if she is blessed with a child, she will give the child to God for his entire life.  This, of course, is a tremendous act of mesirut nefesh, by giving up the joys of motherhood.

However, Channah knows what she is doing.  In her prayer to God in Chapter two, after her son Shmuel is born, she prays, “V’yarem keren meshicho,” that God should raise the horn of the anointed, meaning that God should bring about salvation to His people and that her son hopefully will be instrumental in anointing a savior for the people who will raise them from their spiritual doldrums.

In Chapter One, Channah prays as a barren woman in need of Divine mercy, probably similar to how Sarah and Rachel may have prayed to God for a child.  In Chapter two, after Shmuel is born, Channah sees herself as the collective mother the Jewish people.  She begs God to save her people just as God has saved her from her personal anguish, and she promises to dedicate her son to this purpose.

It is this prayer, the prayer post-birth, a prayer about values and a prayer which reflects an understanding of a broader mission, which is chosen by Chazal to connect to the Rosh Hashana davening.  Just as Channah’s prayer post-birth is a prayer that clarifies why she was praying for a child, so, too, our Rosh Hashanah prayers should clarify why we have been praying the rest of the year.  All year long we have been asking for personal requests, such as health, financial success, and shalom bayit, similar to what Channah requested in Chapter One.  However, on Rosh Hashanah we also must compose a Chapter Two prayer, when we clarify that all we want to do is celebrate God and spread His light to our fellow Jews and the rest of the world.

The key to making prayer more meaningful is for us to realize that prayer is not only a reflection of our values, but prayer is a reflection of what our values should be and it is an opportunity to consciously reflect upon and shape those values.  Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the great 11th century poet, said that prayer is to the soul what food is to the body.  Our soul is crying out for a time to express our core values and our core principles and a truly inspirational davening can be so nourishing for our soul and our spiritual well-being.

As we embark upon this season of prayer, I invite each and every one of you to join me as our community ushers in a new opportunity to set the tone for the year by making our Tefillot more meaningful when we not only ask God to grant us our deepest desires, but we also commit to God and to ourselves that we will happily fulfill God’s holy mission that He has designated for us for yet another year.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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