HMS-22: Preparing for the High Holy Days III: The Power of Prayer

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

September 15, 2003 – Number 22

Preparing for the High Holy Days III: The Power of Prayer

If every Jewish Holiday has its ritual, than the ritual most associated with the High Holy Days is prayer. From the very beginning of the season, until the final shofar sounds of Yom Kippur, This is a period not just of introspection, but a time of prayer. Much of the prayer is misunderstood and the meaning is often lost on those who come to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur unprepared. Just as one must prepare in advance for a visit to the opera or a classical concert, we also must prepare our hearts for this most sacred season.
First, we have to understand that the prayers that are contained in our Machzor, the special book we use on these days of Awe, are not, strictly speaking addressed to G-d. While the form that we use is that of pleading with G-d to give us another year of life, health and prosperity, we must understand that G-d already knows what is in our hearts and what our intentions are for the new year. Even before we ask, G-d is well aware of what we have made of our lives, the good, the bad and the ugly. What G-d is waiting for us for us to understand what we have done with our lives. So while we are speaking to G-d, what we really must be doing is listening to what we are saying.
When we read in the Machzor that G-d judges us on these holy days, we have to think about how we look before the ultimate judge. When it says that “Tzedaka, Prayer and Righteous Deeds avert the severity of the decree” we have to think what acts of Tzedaka, Prayer and Righteous Deeds have we done to deserve to have the decree changed. When we call G-d, our Avinu Malkaynu, our Father our King, we have to think about if we have acted as if we are the sons and daughters of the Ruler of the Universe. While not every person is guilty of every sin listed in the confessional, We need to take heed of the ones we ARE guilty of, and resolve to do better in the new year.
Many people come to services on Rosh Hashana and only concern themselves with how much time they will need to spend in the service. How long do they have to sit in their seats until everyone notices that they are there and they feel like they have prayed long enough. Yet, in their hands, in the Machzor, is the key to living a meaningful and holy life. No matter if we are rich or poor, strong or weak, we can live our life better in relationship to G-d and through G-d to all humanity. The Machzor helps us find our way to what is really important in life, to the people who care, and how to be a caring person to others. As one Rabbi once put it, it is not how long it takes one to get through the Machzor, it is about how long it takes the Machzor to get through to us!
Each service has its theme in bringing us closer to G-d. For those who daven every day or at least every week, there are many nuances of the service that can only be discovered after a year of daily prayer or a year of Shabbat prayer. Even the musical changes, the special melodies for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre, are designed to evoke feelings in our hearts and inspire us to realign our lives according to the Jewish values that have guided our people for their entire 5000 year long history. Every prayer and every Poem, the readings from the Torah and the Haftara, the special changes that are designated for this time of year, all of them are calling us to make the changes now that will bring us true happiness and real prosperity in the new year. The Shofar itself is compared to an alarm clock, sounding its call of return and urgency as time is slipping away.
The services for the High Holy Days is not a performance, it is a call to commitment. While the Rabbi and Cantor are leading from the bima, the real action must be taking place in our hearts. We can change, we can be better. We are not locked into some kind of a life as if it was imprinted in our DNA. All it takes is for us to be moved by what we see, hear and experience in Synagogue, and then act upon our decisions to live a more holy life in the year that is beginning.

Next week: Preparing for the High Holy Days IV: Apples, Honey and Bread Crumbs

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