On Yom Kippur, to Whom — or to what — are we praying?

On Yom Kippur, to Whom — or to what — are we praying?

Five local rabbis share their views on whether there is a Divine ear — and if so, whether it is listening to us on the High Holidays.

(Photo by photovs/iStockPhoto.com)
(Photo by photovs/iStockPhoto.com)

It is through prayer on the High Holidays that many Jews seek their deepest connection to God. We ask forgiveness for past sins and engage in self-reflection, while beseeching a higher entity to first write, then seal, our names in the Book of Life.

But to Whom, or to what, are we praying? For most of us, the liturgical metaphors of God as king, or God as shepherd, or God as father, are just that — metaphors. We may picture an old man on a throne in heaven inscribing names in a giant book, but we know intellectually that is just an image to help us perceive the inscrutable.

Over the course of the past several weeks, the Chronicle talked with five local rabbis, asking their views on whether there is a Divine ear — and if so, whether it is listening to us on the High Holidays. What follows are excerpts from those conversations.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
Congregation Beth Shalom (Conservative)

A trio of clergy adapted a musical tribute for Rabbi Jamie Gibson. From left: Rabbi Seth Adelson, Cantor Laura Berman and Rabbi Cheryl Klein. (Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai)
Is there a divine ear? Yes, there is no question in my mind. I think that there is the potential that God hears our words of prayer. Having said that, do I think that God is actively listening to every single Jewish person in the world, let alone every single other person in the world — because there are obviously a lot more of them? I must say the answer is, “I do not know.”

But for me, it doesn’t really matter if God is listening or not because I know that when I actively engage in prayer, I am doing a couple different things. I am, number one, fulfilling a mitzvah, which I like to translate as an opportunity to do something holy in the proper time. I am also taking a moment out of my day to take a step back, both literally and figuratively, from my regular self, and to take a step forward into a holier place — and in doing so, allow myself to reflect on the things that are truly important to me.

So, those are the first two things — performing a mitzvah and taking a moment of reflection, which is really valuable. And the third thing — and this in my mind is the most important thing — if you are doing prayer correctly, it not only connects you with yourself, but it also connects you to the people in the room and the people who are not in the room.

We have this Jewish custom of minyan, meaning you can’t really fulfill all the aspects of prayer until you are part of a group. And I find that is really essential.

It doesn’t matter where your head is; it doesn’t matter where the other at least nine people’s heads are; you’ve gathered together for this holy purpose, and there is real power to that in the sense of connection to other people. And prayer, if done correctly, should in fact connect us to others and sensitize us to their needs, and I hope to the needs of the world.

I think we need more prayer. It doesn’t matter if God is listening.

What distinguishes the High Holidays, I think, from the rest of the year is that I think people are really open at this time to what our tradition offers. That’s why I’m not going to talk about the Book of Life [in my High Holiday sermons], but I’m going to talk about what it means to be a better person. What does it mean to increase the love in this world? What does it mean for me to spend a little time on these three days in communion with God and my community reciting these words of prayer? How can I take something meaningful from that?

Leaving God and theology aside, I am convinced that our tradition offers a lot for us to learn from and to improve our lives — to make our relationships better, to elevate the holiness in our community, to bring people together. Our tradition teaches us to focus on improving our lives. And whether or not there is a divine ear is secondary. Not irrelevant, but secondary.

The Hebrew word l’hitpallel means to pray. It doesn’t mean to mumble words in an ancient language. It literally means to judge oneself. It is reflexive. It reflects back at us. We are standing in judgment on ourselves — and that doesn’t just have to happen on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I do that every morning and every evening. It’s not easy, but that’s what it’s for.

Our primary goal should not be to seek God, but rather to seek holy moments: the moments of acknowledgment of wonder in our lives, of the sanctity of life and family and relationships.

Rabbi Yisoel Altein,
rabbi of Chabad of Squirrel Hill (Chabad-Lubavitch)

Rabbi Yisroel Altein talks to a large group of people about the history and making of a shofar.
Rabbi Yisroel Altein talks to a large group of people about the history and making of a shofar. (File photo)
According to Chasidic Kabbalistic theology, when we are thinking about God in general, we are talking about the true and real existence of everything — reality, ourselves, the world, everything that happens.

To quote the verse, when the Jews were at Mt. Sinai, they were shown “that nothing exists other than God.” When I am talking to God, it’s talking to real existence, not only of some true existence outside myself, but also to my true existence, my true self.

In Chasidic literature there is a lot of talk about the word tefillah; it doesn’t just mean prayer but comes from the word “connection.”

Obviously, prayer is a connection with God, but it is also finding God inside of me. When you ask, “Am I praying to God or am I hearing myself?” it’s one and the same.

Prayer is about where I can connect to God. Prayer would be a time to speak to God, but also a time to find myself, to prioritize and recognize who I really am, what my needs are really here to serve.

There is absolutely a divine ear. The divine reality, God — again, we can’t wrap our heads around what this means, this true reality, God, it’s beyond our limitations — but this Supreme Being, which is the truth of all reality, is listening to us. As much as we are seeking that connection with God, God is seeking a connection with us.

Prayer is a time to develop this relationship with God and ourselves, or ourselves with God. And in order to really do that — because we have to uncover the true self — we have all these metaphors. Believe it or not, our connection is like a parent to a child, a spouse, teacher/student, sibling. And the reason for that is, everything that exists is coming from God. That fact is that all these relationships in the physical world reflect these relationships with God. Our relationship with God is so multi-leveled that we can fit in any one of those relationships with God and it’s true.

The most important relationship on the High Holidays is king/subject, which is mentioned throughout the liturgy and is probably the most common or most visual relationship that’s in the High Holiday liturgy.

Our relationship is multi-tiered, and different moments, different people, different occasions, bring out those different levels of relationships. It’s all metaphors to help us appreciate. But it’s not just a metaphor; there is an element of our relationship with God that mirrors any of these analogies that are used throughout either our liturgy or literature in expressing our relationship with God.

I think the balance between the two ideas — Aveinu Malkenu — where the focus is on God as king, but also the personal relationship of God as father, or even as a spouse, go together. We combine the two, because even when we are talking about God with trepidation — God as king — that important focus of recognizing the loving approach that God has to us is what we are here to reciprocate back. And that is supposed to be a warm, meaningful experience on the High Holidays. That doesn’t mean we are making light of the kingship but putting the kingship in the proper perspective, that awe and trepidation don’t have to be in contradiction to joy, warmth and comfort.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno,
Rodef Shalom Congregation (Reform)

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom Congregation, Ruth Westerman and her husband, Bob Myers. (Photo by Mosaic Photography for Rodef Shalom)
While we have a textural tradition that says we were created in God’s image, in point of fact, we human beings created a God in our image. And God was to the rabbis, the rabbi par excellence. If the rabbis could be judicious in their rulings, because God is judicious, or they could be merciful, they could be like God. They projected onto God the very best humanized qualities that they wanted to aspire toward.

Much of liturgy, I believe, is in such an arcane kind of voice, that while it resonates as mantra, if we unpack it, we can see some historical development about our concept of God, but it’s really just sort of mantra. The liturgy frustrates our ability to get at what we want most to talk about here.

When someone comes up to me and says, “I don’t believe in God,” my retort is usually something like, “The god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Let’s all agree we are going to reject the old man on the throne theory.

When we recite, “What are we God that you are mindful of us?” I actually don’t believe in a God that’s taking note of me. The verb “to pray” in Hebrew is l’hitpallel — in this we have tefillah — and it’s a reflexive verb. What that means is, the one who does the action, it is to them that the action is actually happening. So, l’hitpallel is to “pray yourself” as it were. It’s to have an effect internally.

But I can use God language to get there — that is to say, to recognize that when I make choices, some choices are better than other choices, and choices have consequences. If I make good choices then I can continue in that direction, whereas if I start making choices that are not in my best interest, or are nefarious, or that are against my ideal over my conscience, then it becomes easier to do that. The idea is that the efficacy of prayer in Jewish thought is on the one who is doing the praying.

The inner voice that animates you and gives you personality, whether it is articulated or not, whether it comes across your lips or whether it’s inside — the idea is that the effect is on you, that you might be inspired to bring about peace, or you might create it, that you should find it.

Do I believe when I pray that I’m praying to God? The answer is, that’s not the idiom that works best for me. That’s not the image I have. I take seriously the idea of l’hitpallel, that prayer is to have an effect on me. When we’re praying, ultimately we have the greatest impact on ourselves, and our relationships with others.

So, are we actually directing our prayers to some deity, or some concept of the divine, to something larger than ourselves which may suspend disbelief, or is it inside you? That’s the constant tension.

On the one hand, each of us ultimately is alone in the world, but we make connections and we experience emotions, and we decide we are going to invest in certain relationships which gives us a sense of significance. And, at the exact same time, the world would work just fine without any one of us in it. And both are true.

You can make your life meaningful, and you can make your beliefs have impact. Ultimately, what you believe is interesting. What your beliefs lead you to do is significant.

Rabbi Doris Dyen,
rabbi for the independent havurah Makom HaLev (Reconstructionist-Renewal)

Abeera Batool, left, is joined by Rabbi Doris Dyen, center, and Sara Stock Mayo at last month’s annual conference for Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Stock Mayo)
There are times in life when the sense of the presence of holiness can be really strong. I feel God’s presence deeply around the High Holidays, and at other times, such as life events when someone I love is close to death, or when someone I care about has just had a baby. Then there are other moments when I find myself asking, “Where is God? Is anything out there? Does anyone care?” Perhaps both experiences are true not only for me but for many people.

When I’ve been very ill, it can be a struggle to say, “God is here for me.” What does that really mean? At times like that it’s been useful to reframe my thinking: “Okay, what are the things that have helped me? Who are the people who have been there for me?” So maybe God is not about anything external, but instead it’s that God is in us, the sense of Godliness is within us, if we’re open to it.

For example, I believe that the ability to forgive is Godly. So, to the extent that I am able to forgive someone else, I am expressing the very best that is in this world, and therefore emulating what “Godly” is. When someone forgives me for something I’ve done to hurt them, that person is manifesting Godliness.

On Yom Kippur, asking forgiveness from the Holy Universe is a way of saying, “I am not isolated in this world. I have to live with other people. I have to be connected; I want to be connected.” Perhaps God is in that connection. If so, then to the extent that you or I can strengthen that connection — one person to another to another to another — we increase the amount of Godliness in the world: the “God-Field.”

In my rabbinic training, we were taught to look at the way God is perceived at different times in Jewish history. We came to recognize that God is described in different ways in Tanach, even within Torah itself. In Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, God appears as a parental entity “out there,” one with human-like emotions, one who intervenes in world affairs and one who punishes or rewards. But in the book of Leviticus, we encounter God as a powerful source of spiritual energy in the universe, analogous to nuclear energy: a Force that can make wonderful things happen, but one that can also be extremely destructive, if not dealt with well.

We’re no longer talking about reward or punishment here. This concept leads to a different way of thinking about Godliness: the idea that the things every one of us does have an impact in the world. If we make plants grow that can give life to another person or that can help feed others, and we do it in a responsible way that helps the planet’s sustainability, we are treating that powerful force with respect. But if we throw tons of plastic garbage in the oceans and start killing off fish and decimating life, then we are not treating that powerful force properly and it will become destructive.

I believe it is the weight of all of these concerns that we are being asked to confront during the High Holidays. What have we done or failed to do on the personal level to manifest the Godliness within us? What have we done or failed to on the global level to work in harmony with the universe’s powerful unseen God-energy, what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called “the force that makes for salvation”? The transformative force that enables change to happen, the dynamic spiritual force that allows for creativity. What have we done or failed to do that would bring about changes for the better?

Opening to God during the High Holidays is therefore not about asking for rewards or fearing punishment. Instead it means heeding the call to face who we are, who we really are at this moment.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut,
Congregation Poale Zedeck (Modern Orthodox)

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut addresses the significance of the date of the 10th of Tevet. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut addresses the significance of the date of the 10th of Tevet. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
This is a time of year when we are taught that we experience God’s proximity in a different kind of way, that we perhaps awaken ourselves to something that is always there, but that we don’t take the time to think about or to feel. The Talmud interprets the Book of Isaiah, ‘Call to Him when He is close,’ as a reference to the period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, when we feel this sense of connection, connection to the infinite.

The notion in Judaism of closeness to God is an undeniably radical one. On the one hand, God, who is the source of everything, is other, that He is wholly different than we mortal physical creatures are. Paradoxically, at the same time, we believe God is imminent, that He is there, that He is accessible, that He can be a source of connection of comfort, He is approachable in prayer, and that He is listening to our prayers, even though we are small and inconsequential by comparison, that God is interested in us and gave us mitzvot in the Torah to shape our lives.

All of Judaism is predicated on this idea that God cares about us, and is interested in us, and is rooting for us, notwithstanding all of our flaws. And the truth is, isn’t that what we are all looking for in life in general? Someone who knows everything about us — and still cares about us.

Capturing what that means comes with work. There are times when God’s presence is intuitive. There are times when we feel God, be it going somewhere like the Grand Canyon, the birth of a child, sometimes at a time of loss — the notion that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and that all of this has to have a meaning is almost intuitive. At the same time, that kind of natural feeling has to be nurtured and given a context. So one of the prayers that really highlights that is on Yom Kippur. Before we come to the section on confession, there is a prayer called “We are your nation,” which goes through a litany of different models of trying to understand or trying to think about what it means to be connected to God.

So, we say, “we are your people, you are our God, we are your children, you are our father, we are your sheep, you are our shepherd, we are your friend, you are our beloved. We are your nation, you are our king.” This series of metaphors attempts to capture what is on some level extremely abstract, but that we naturally know must be there. We process our relationship with God in a more vivid way by integrating these models, but being overly hung up on any of the models misses the point. Each person has to find their own balance between these different pieces in a way that allows God into their lives.

This is a time about reconnecting to God, reconnecting with the idea that God has a plan for the cosmos and the Jewish people and every person, that God will reveal himself to the world, that the world will be transformed into a society where everyone has a shared sense of connection to God and a sense of mission, and committing ourselves to that vision.

At the same time, it is self-reflecting, a time of looking at ourselves trying to take an honest look at our shortcomings, where we want to grow, where we want to change and how we. So it is really both at the same time. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.
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