Rosh Hashanah Theme Talk ~ 5771
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
at the Aquarian Minyan
Erev Rosh Hashanah
“Va’ani t’filati …. I am my prayer.” That is our theme and our koan for this new year. How does a person become a prayer? How do I make my life my prayer? How can we help one another to make our lives our prayers?
Tomorrow’s traditional haftarah reading from the Book of Samuel tells the story of Hannah, the first person in Scripture to entreat G~d in prayer. Hannah, as you may remember, like so many of the matriarchal figures in Torah, is childless, a painfully unfulfilled woman, unable to receive the love of her adoring husband, Elkanah, because she has been denied her heart’s deepest desire, a child.
During the family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah enters the Temple by herself. Eli, the old priest, is sitting near the door. The text says, “v’hi marat nefesh…and she was bitter of soul…va-tit’pallel al YHVH…and she prayed “upon” the Holy One, as if she was leaning against G~d… u-vakhoh tivkeh…all the while crying her heart out….” And a little further on it says, “v’Hannah, hi midaberet al libah; rak s’fateyha na-ot, v’kolah lo yishameya…and Hannah was speaking upon her heart; only her lips moved and her voice was not heard.”
Now, the Hebrew verb l’hitpallel, which translates “to pray,” “to intercede” or “to judge oneself,” is also related to an Arabic word meaning “to cut oneself in worship.” And in English “tears” and “tears” are spelled the same way. Weeping out to G-d her longing and her passion, Hannah rips open her heart and surrenders to the depths of her own desire. The old priest, Eli, thinks she’s drunk, but no, it’s simply that Hannah’s “ani,” her sense of self, has expanded to include all of her depths. She has become her prayer and that prayer has opened her, opened space inside her to receive, to create new life. Pregnant with the prayer that is hers alone to pray, Hannah soon becomes pregnant with her son, Samuel, who will become a great prophet-priest, an anointer of Kings.
Ha-yom harat olam—here we are, gathered on Rosh Hashanah, this day “pregnant with eternity” that gives birth to Creation. With what are you pregnant right now? Will you have the courage to lean upon G~d, to speak and sing and dance and whisper away the “ani” that covers your heart, to let yourself be stretched by G~d, as Hannah was? To pray the prayer that is only yours to pray in this world?
But there is more. For the phrase “va’ani t’filati” is the beginning of a verse from Psalm 69, which is included in the daily Mah tovu prayer and in our High Holy Day liturgy. The verse continues, “va’ani t’filati l’kha YHVH…,” usually translated something like, “As for me, may my prayer be to You, HaShem….” But it could also be read, “As for my self, my prayer is for You, YHVH….” For Your sake!
The Ba’al Shem Tov of blessed memory taught that our prayers should never be offered for our own benefit, but always for the benefit of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence that shines through and animates the entire physical universe. For when we pour out our ani and fill ourselves with the light of prayer, then we can perceive, the BeShT taught, that the lacks, the cracks in our own lives point to cracks in supernal worlds, within G~dself and our prayer reaches beyond our personal needs and tzurus to soothe the very pain of the Shekhinah.
What might it mean, during these High Holy Days, to dedicate ourselves, even in some small way, to becoming a prayer of healing for the pain of the World, the pain of the Shekhinah? What small acts of comfort and respite will you offer to air and earth, water and rock, to birds and animals and fish and to your fellow beings during the year to come? How will you pray with your hands and feet, with words of encouragement and soft glances of understanding, with your love, through your material resources, in every act?
Our verse continues: “va’ani t’filat l’kha, YHVH, et ratzon….” I will live my life as a prayer for You, Greatest Power, turning each moment into et ratzon, a “time of desire,” a desirable time—time permeated with my desire to serve, to align my will with Great Will.
So…let’s pause a moment to take a look at what stands in the way of our being this living prayer, this song in service of the Highest. Because isn’t that what we’re really here for? Yes, it’s the calluses on our bruised hearts, and it’s the anguish, bitterness, and disappointment, that lie beneath those calluses. And maybe it’s the ingrained belief that we are victims, powerless to apply our ratzon, our will, to truly shift our own circumstances, much less those of a larger reality. Perhaps we blame others, in some way, for the situations of our lives—our parents, our teachers, our culture—and our blaming, our inability to fore-give eats away, day by day, at our ability to stand at the center of our own lives, to believe that what we do matters.
There’s another obstacle I want to name, so much a part of our field of vision at times that we are completely blind to it—let’s call it “entitlement,” the sense that I deserve something, am owed something—or maybe that I, of all people in the world, don’t deserve this! Entitlement seems to stem from and feed on a sense of separation, of “better than,” and maybe, at a more hidden level, of “worse than.”
A story: in the late 1980’s I chose to step back from my flourishing dance career to train in Body-Mind Centering, a body-based healing and learning method that has immeasurably deepened, enriched, and transformed my life. I was drawn by the beauty and profundity of the work, but also scared and angry that to grow, I had to leave behind the ego I’d invested in myself as dancer, choreographer, and teacher. It was expensive to study, and I had no money. So I got a part-time job selling Birkenstocks in a friend’s shoe store, Shoes to Boot, on the West Bank in Minneapolis, where I lived at the time.
The building didn’t have central heat, and all winter, as I stoked the woodstove and sat at the little desk, freezing and waiting for people to come in and buy Birkenstocks in the middle of winter, I sang myself a silent, angry little lullabye: “What are you, a University of Michigan straight-A summa cum laude graduate who’s gotten all these grants to make dances and traveled the world—what are you doing selling shoes in a grubby, freezing little shop?” It didn’t matter how much I talked myself through it, told myself I was doing this for a purpose, to grow, to follow a path, that it was worthy work, that I was not just selling shoes, by golly, but being a “foot therapist”—no matter how I tried to reframe it, I held close to my heart this cruel little tune, that I should have better, should be better.
Underneath entitlement, in my experience, is a deep insecurity, a lack of faith in my life and purpose and in the Holy Presence that guides and provides for me. This is the faith that the Holy BeShT teaches us lies at the very heart of prayer: that whatever role I seem to be fulfilling, whatever the difficulty within my economic circumstances or relationships, that my deepest prayers, when I dare to pray them, are being answered through the truth of Life. This is why, I think, our tradition so strongly stresses care for the stranger, the less advantaged, the dejected, the hopeless—because, G~d knows, each one of us has been, and will be again, caught in mitzrayim, seemingly enslaved by difficult circumstances that hurl us over and over into spaces of contracted consciousness! We are all the same, all united in this.
On Rosh Hashanah 1941, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote, “The time for repentance is Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world. This is because repentance…is also a kind of creativity.” When I relinquish my sense of entitlement, I am re-deemed and returned in love, not to who I was, who I think I am, but to who I am becoming.
And then, then, I just might begin to find my way to the end of our verse: “va’ani t’filati l’kha YHVH, et ratzon, elohim b’rov khasekha, aneni b’emet yishekha!” There is a level of practice beyond the stretching of the self, beyond moving into the depths of the self. We might call it “victory,” when like Hannah, we are able to sing, “My heart exults in the Holy One /my self-esteem has been raised up through Yah / my mouth is wide open in the face of all impediments / for I have rejoiced in being stretched by You!” Or we might call it truth, the truth that pours the open channel that Hannah has become: “No one is as holy as Y H V H / for nothing exists without You / and nothing endures nor supports like our God!” (I Samuel, 2:1-2, author’s translation)
Opened beyond self, empty of “ani,” I fill with You, Yah. My life becomes a prayer for your sake, a dance in step with all of Creation, birthed into embodiment through a vast and joyful Love, beyond what my small consciousness can imagine, drenched in a Truth that, when I get out of the way, sweeps me up into the flow of all existence. In the words of Hannah, the mother of prayer, “I rejoice in being stretched by You!” And in the words of Leonard Cohen, great soul rebbe of our time,
“…you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting, and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveler’s heart for her turning, for his turning.”1