Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Yom Kippur 5756
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The High Holy Days don't play to our strength. The extended services put a premium on prayer, an activity at which we are no longer very adept. Yom Kippur asks of us to spend an entire day in the synagogue immersed in prayer. But we find it easier to believe in God than to pray to God. It is this common state of discomfort that prompts me to share with you a few thoughts on the art of Jewish praying.
Like the Rabbis of old, I am convinced that when done well, turning to God in prayer can effect change and alleviate suffering. A sensitive midrash on Cain proclaims the power of prayer. "Do you want to know exactly how powerful? Even when prayer fails to do the whole job, it manages to get at least half of it done."
The Rabbis, who prefer to theologize narratively, construe a fascinating dialogue between God and Cain after history's first recorded murder. The pollution of Abel's blood renders the soil infertile and Cain is condemned to a life of "ceaseless wandering over the face of the earth (Genesis 4:12)." In the Hebrew, two synonymous nouns, na ve-nad, convey the full force of his fate "of ceaseless wandering."
Instantaneously, Cain atones for his sin, as if it is only in retrospect that he realizes the gravity of his act. "My punishment is too great to bear (Genesis 4:13)," he says. And then immediately adds, according to the midrash: "Look, God, you tolerate [the excesses] of all the world, but my sin You can't forgive? Your own prophet has described You as forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression (Micah 7:18).'" The plea has its intended effect. God is stirred by the remorse and the argument and drops half the sentence. The Torah simply records that: "Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Genesis 4:16)." The linguistic anomaly (the resemblance of "nad" and "Nod" along with the disappearance of the word "na" in the final line of Cain's story) implies that sincere prayer will not go wholly unanswered. Minimally, it is still partially effective. Cain is not doomed to a fate of endless wandering.
Our liturgy prepares us to expect less than everything. Our faith in God is not predicated on miracles. U-netaneh tokef, the central affirmation of the High Holy Day services, culminates with the declaration that "penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree." Not the decree itself, but only its harshness! Many conditions are irreversible and actions have their consequences. But prayer can keep us from panicking, give us the insight to soften the impact, help us to forge the right attitude. The attitude we take to what befalls us is the last realm of human freedom and dignity.
Praying gives us perspective. Like Hagar, we catch sight of something vital obscured by our despair. Lost in the wilderness of Beer-sheba without water, Hagar places her child Yishmael in the shade of a bush to die of thirst. She distances herself so that she might not witness his suffering. But the anguish of her weeping elicits a divine response. God calms her with the reassurance that Yishmael is not about to die. His destiny remains unchanged: to be the father of a great nation. Whereupon, "God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She sent and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink (Genesis 21:19)." No miracle, just better vision. The well had always been there. In her panic and pain, Hagar never saw it. Prayer gives us the ability to recognize the relief at our side.
Then too we approach God with economy. For all our praying on the High Holy Days, what is it that we ask of God? Not eternal life in the world-to-come or even long life in this one. No, our request is much more modest: one more year, that is all we seek. Faced with our mortality, we yearn for but a slight extension. The disparity between the intensity of our praying and the modesty of our request could not be more striking.
Judaism offers us this-worldly salvation. And what are we to do with the extra time God chooses to grant us? It is not meant for the vacation in the Caribbean that we missed last winter. Reb Mendel of Kotz was once visited by Reb Yaakov Aryeh of Radzimin. Reb Mendel soon came to ask him: "When did God create human beings?" to which Reb Yaakov answered: "To save their souls." "No, not at all," cried Reb Mendel. "That is pure self-worship and a form of idolatry. We were put on this earth to hold up the heavens!"
That is the ultimate, glorious purpose of our withdrawal into the sanctity of the synagogue: to renew our dedication to the task of completing creation. We yearn for undistracted well-being so that we might do our share to keep the heavens aloft or imbue life on earth with the harmony on high.
And is there perchance a way for us to know if our prayers have been heard? A first-century pietist by the name of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was often called in to pray for the recovery of a person gravely ill. When finished, he would express his view on the patient's prospects: "This person will live but that person will die." When his students asked him how he knew, he revealed to them his secret: "If my prayers flow fluently from my mouth, then I know they have been accepted. If not, I know they have been rejected."
The story suggests that much of the efficacy of prayer depends on how we pray. To launch a satellite, we need to generate enough rocket power to overcome the earth's gravitational pull. If our prayers well up from the recesses of our soul naturally with conviction and eloquence, we are graced with a feeling of fulfillment. If we are masters of the liturgy, it works for us. And this, of course, is the plight of so many of us American Jews. We lack the practice and familiarity to give us control over the words of the prayer book. Its ideas are far less of an obstacle to praying than its words. To pray is as much an art form, a vehicle for expressing our most human sentiments with beauty, as is playing the piano. Both need diligent practice to achieve the power of self-expression.
May our praying in the year to come become more fluent and frequent.