Nachman Davies
Practising and promoting Contemplative lifestyles in Judaism

Yom Kippur 2020: For Those Davening Alone and at Home

Author's Prayer room in Safed
Author's Prayer room in Safed

Many of us will have chosen to daven alone this year because of  a concern to protect human life. Some of us will be deeply saddened by this situation.  But it may be that this turn of events can be  turned  on its head and seen as a positive opportunity to deepen our  contemplative relationship with HaShem.  Providence may actually be  involved here.  It may be that we are being asked to spiritualise our awareness of what community membership really means. I believe  that is so.

In the Jewish liturgy, there is a dynamic fluctuation between communal and private prayer. That fluctuation is  a strong creative  element through which  we are  encouraged to see ourselves both as distinct and valued individuals, and also as essential contributors  to  a community with  a very specific goal and  purpose.  On Yom Kippur,we are  reminded that each of us is alone before G-d, yet we are standing before Him as one united body: Kehal Yisrael.

In the Torah, the relationship between the  Individual and  the  Community is a recurrent feature of discussions  on the  ‘Yom Kippur process’. In Parsha Ahare Mos, for example, we read of the detailed instructions for the liturgy of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day for Atonement.  In its  proximate Parsha, Kedoshim, we read  of the ways in which we are enjoined to “love our neighbour as ourselves” (Vayikra 19:18).  The two are, not surprisingly, very closely related indeed.

The ritual act of Atonement consists in the three steps of (i) praying for oneself; (ii) praying for one’s  near ones; and (iii) praying for the wider community (Vayikra 16:17).  The process of Atonement begins with a prayer for oneself but then moves on to those two further prayers for others.  That first self-focused prayer exists primarily to make our subsequent prayers for the community more acceptable.

Prayer is  sometimes formal and  sometimes freely expressed, sometimes it is an outpouring of a person’s emotions or petitions, sometimes it is an act of listening attentively, and  sometimes it becomes a two way conversion.  But  Prayer is also one of the deepest and most selfless forms of caring for others that we are privileged to exercise as human partners in the Divine Plan.

It is a hidden activity which does not draw attention to the ego, and it can be exercised not just by Leviim and Kohanim, but by anyone with a good and pure intention. Such profound and atoning prayer may be performed in physical solitude or in the midst of a congregation. When it is performed in solitude one never prays ‘outside’ the community, and when one prays in the company of other daveners, the real ‘business’ still takes place in the sanctuary of one’s own heart.

It is a paradox of our Divine Service that Jewish prayer  is always communal and yet,at its most profound, it is also simultaneously  a matter of an individual’s intimate communion with G-d.

In these times of pandemic restrictions and regulations  on gathering for worship, we have the opportunity to see that one does not need to be in a physical congregation in order to be communal.

We CAN  feel the accompanying presence of the  entire nation as  it stands before G-d.   The Day of Yom Kippur itself makes that especially tangible.  It just takes  a little  more effort to spiritualise our worship  and to become aware that we are  actually standing shoulder to shoulder whenever we stand  before G-d in prayer.

In  the instructions for the High Priest on Yom Kippur, we read:

“And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goes in to make atonement for the holy place, until he comes out after having made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.” (Vayikra 16:17)

Though the vast majority of halachic commentaries on the liturgy place communal prayer in a firm position of superiority over individual prayer, and though the strictest and most physical conception of  ‘minyan’  is the one which has prevailed to this day—the fact remains that the principal prayer in our principal liturgical ceremony, on our most holy day is  performed by a single individual in clearly commanded isolation.

This year we are all invited to be  our own High Priest, our own Shaliach Tzibbur…..each and  every one of us acting in mutual responsibility.

The biblical Kohen HaGadol enters and prays alone, but (as his vestments underline) the High Priest takes the whole community on his shoulders and bears them on his heart.  So do we if we bind ourselves to the whole Community of Israel and to those we pray for.  We may pray alone, but if our prayer is to be true—we never pray without this awareness of the community. If we pray with and in the community— we are remembering that our solitary prayers are always for the benefit of all. It is for this reason that the Arizal recommended that one begin the daily services with the declaration.

“Hareini mekabel ‘alai mitsvat asei shel ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha”

(I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to love my fellow as myself.)

We too can stand before the ark in that place of solitary pleading and encounter, if G-d should choose that we might be admitted.  We are not ordained biblical high priests and yet we are all invited to stand in G-d’s  Presence whenever we enter into liturgical or contemplative prayer with a whole heart, with burning deveykut and with the intention to draw close our G-d.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that a person who prays with sincerity is actually standing in the Holy of Holies when they pray, and that such a person’s upheld hands are like the wings of the keruvim above the ark.   I would  take this  further  and  say that the metaphysical location of the  Temple Sanctuary is actually inside the soul of the one  praying.

Before davening, we bind ourselves in hiskashrut to the merits of those greater than ourselves in the hope that we may ourselves be elevated. Thus strengthened, our prayers may be of more use to those for whom we pray, and for those who may need our assistance.   In this context, it is said that Rebbe Mikhal of Zlotchov used to begin his davening with the prayer:

“I join myself to all of Israel:To those who are more than I,that through them I may rise-and to those who are less than I,so that they may rise through my thought.” (M. Buber “Tales of the Hasidim” p150)

In such a broad community of saints and sinners, we are never alone in prayer and we have a duty to make sure our contemplative prayers are  an activity of community-focused chesed and atonement worthy of one such as Aharon the High Priest. Nothing less will do.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

About the Author
Nachman Davies is an author, copy editor, and Jewish Contemplative. After a lifetime working as a composer and school music teacher in UK, Jakarta, and Singapore: he became totally deaf, bought a cave house in Spain, and began a twelve year experiment in living an observant yet solitary life as a full time contemplative practitioner. He made aliyah in 2019 and now lives in Tsfat in Northern Israel. (His personal website "Jewish Contemplatives" can be viewed at https://jewishcontemplatives.blogspot.com )
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