‘You stand, all of you, before the Sovereign your God,’ thus opens the Torah portion which we always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.
For what shall we pray as we stand before God on these Holy Days, the New Year, the Ten Days of Return and Yom Kippur? The world is faced by grave dangers: President Putin’s evil war, floods, droughts, a changing climate, turbulent politics and uncertain leadership. I don’t need to spell out the threats, it’s hard to bear even thinking about them.
We will surely ask God for peace and mercy, healing and plenty. Will God make it happen? Can God make it happen? For myself, I believe rather in the sacred presence of God within each of us and all creation than in some all-powerful being residing in heaven.
But these matters are mysteries, so we send forth our prayers in hope. May they ascend to the place of God’s mercy. May they descend to those spaces in our heart and conscience where the presence of God abides.
We can’t know what happens on high, but there are ways we can make certain that our prayers are answered below.
‘Prayer boomerangs,’ wrote the much-missed Rabbi Lionel Blue. We start by asking God to send us healing, then ask ourselves: what am I doing to bring more healing into the world? We pray for justice, and are motivated to campaign against injustice. We ask, in the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, for a year of beneficial rains and dew. Then we consider: what can I change and influence so that the earth remains fertile and people don’t suffer famine?
We misdirect our prayers if we only send them up to heaven and not down into our conscience and out into our actions every day.
There’s a spiritual as well as a moral dimension in which we can know that our prayers are worthwhile. ‘How can we be sure our prayers are effective on high?’ asked Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, subsequently know as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, before answering, ‘If they awaken in us the fear of God.’ ‘Fear’ has negative connotations, but that’s not what he intends. He’s referring to what he defines as ‘the fear, or awe, within love.’
What we love, we do not want to hurt. On the contrary, we do everything we possibly can to avoid causing those we love pain. The deeper the love, the more powerful the determination to inflict no harm and to prevent others from doing so. When we do cause hurt, we feel instinctively sorry: What have I done? How could I have spoken, how could I have behaved, that way?’
This ‘fear, or awe, within love’ comes from our core. We can experience it not just towards other people, but towards life itself. In the depths of our heart, do we really want to hurt any living creature? Would we not do everything we could to prevent their suffering? ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ declared Isaiah in some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew Bible.
One of the first prayers we say is for the efficacy of prayer itself. Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the coming year, may the words we speak and the music and silence we share come before the presence of God which dwells in our heart and conscience, awakening us to deeper love and awe and motivating us to do what is just, good and kind ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.’
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah