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When the prayer-giver is an intermediary

Congregations, traditionally and institutionally, appoint a chazzan to help pray to God for their members. During the darkest moments of COVID, when communal prayer for Orthodox Jewry didn’t exist even virtually, neither the chazzan “agency,” if you will, nor communal prayer existed. Individuals prayed for themselves and their loved ones. Kavannah was probably at its height. Individual prayer-givers advanced the sincerity that they alone could muster in communicating with God in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Historically, communal prayer led by an appointed prayer-giver or agent began when the population was largely illiterate, actually requiring an advocate to recite the chosen words of prayer. The printing press also didn’t yet exist. So, even if the populace was literate, prayer books to enable them to recite the prayers weren’t available either.

Nowadays, on the High Holidays — but, curiously, only on those days —  the congregation’s chazzan humbly begins the mussaf service with a unique meditation called Hinnini in which he petitions God to receive his prayers on the congregation’s behalf.

Paraphrasing here, the chazzan states that he comes to plead on behalf of himself and the people of Israel. Seeking mercy for himself and the congregation he, albeit with words chosen for him, humbly articulates — ironically, as if he composed the words he recites — his unworthiness for the task. He adds: “Blame them not for my sins; convict them not for my iniquities, for I am a transgressor indeed  .     .      . Accept my prayer as if I were entirely qualified and well-pleasing to my fellow men.”

The moving thoughts (that would be far more compelling were they of the chazzan’s own creation) likely express the views of many skeptical members of the congregation who didn’t select him; who don’t know him; nor take no delight in his being chosen as their agent (for a variety of reasons). The prayer, though, does humbly acknowledge the declarant’s unworthiness, whether he composed the words or not.

Nowhere, however, does the prayer-giver (call him “intermediary” or “agent”) articulate the sincerity of his prayers on behalf of the congregation’s membership. How, after all, could he? Remorse is, indeed, the touchstone of any prayer asking for forgiveness. How could any chazzan possibly maintain, when he prays for a congregation’s members, that those individuals are indeed truly remorseful — that his own heart, assuming its own sincere remorsefulness, speaks also to the genuineness of theirs as well? Otherwise put, how can even the most genuine “intermediary” or “agent” for individuals — some he doesn’t know, most he never spoke to about remorse —  tell God that “We, each of us, are unendingly sorry for what we have done, and we will never repeat it?”

Although an imperfect comparison, consider this. A criminal defendant’s lawyer diligently having prepared his client for sentence might tell the judge when the moment of truth is at hand: “I’ve spoken to my client within the unique confessional of my relationship with him. He has persuaded me of the genuine and meaningful nature of his total remorse. But, Your Honor, of course, you can’t, you shouldn’t, rely on what I say here — I‘m, understandably, not objective about this at all. And yes — uneducated, my client speaks poorly, without the voice or articulateness of a trained communicator wanting to communicate his unbridled thoughts to you. I respectfully submit, though, that he can and will speak to you from his heart, albeit with halting eloquence. Hear him directly; and forgive his truly imperfect and stammering manner.”

No chazzan, no agent, no “intermediary” with God — not even most earnest among them, and there are many — can and will possibly have engaged with their “clients” in the manner of the hypothetical lawyer described above. God must surely recognize that — and, if we were He we too — would probably discount the value of a third party’s prayer with that in mind.

This essay shouldn’t be read as an attack on the institution of chazzanut. It rather attempts to underscore the importance of one’s own individual prayer. At day’s end, we must ourselves speak to God for ourselves and our loved ones, however imperfect and inarticulate our personal prayer-giving might be.

Isn’t individualized sincerity and remorsefulness what you would look to from mankind if you were God? As the Koren mahzor footnote tells us in its introduction to Hinnini: “One Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rimanov turned to his congregation who had come to pray with him, and said: You are a beautiful congregation, but I cannot carry you on my shoulders. Each of you must exercise your own repentance, prayer and charity.’” (It sometimes pays to read the footnotes.)

G’mar Tov.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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