As I write these words, the High Holy Days are just around the corner. Soon, we will be spending many hours praying together, talking together, and of course, eating together. While schmoozing and eating may come naturally to many of us, prayer is often challenging. We sit, we stand, we sit again as we read the words on the page. Do we believe these words? Do they ring true for us?
The High Holy Days liturgy in particular, can be challenging, with its many references to God as Sovereign and Judge. Do we really believe that God has a big book of our deeds and is weighing our mitzvot against our sins? How do we pray to God who is simultaneously “Avinu” (Father or Parent) and “Malkeinu” (King or Ruler)? Do we appeal to God’s mercy or to God’s justice? What if we have our own prayer that doesn’t seem to be reflected in the words of the Mahzor?
Perhaps the beginning of the answer to these questions (and many more) is found in the Hebrew word for prayer itself: tefillah. Tefillah comes from the verb l’hitpallel. It is a reflexive verb that we define as “to pray” but is closer in meaning to “to judge oneself.” Tefillah‘s word origin provides us with insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The essential part of prayer, whether petition, thanksgiving, praise, or confession, is introspection.
L’hitpallel – to pray or to judge oneself, offers us the opportunity to look deep within, and to contemplate our role in the universe and our relationship with God. In order to pray in the sense of l’hitpallel or tefillah, we must examine our relationships and evaluate our priorities. Are we living our values? Are we living up to the best in ourselves? Where have we fallen short and why? As we appeal to God’s sense of mercy and to God’s sense of judgment, where are places in our lives that we can be more gentle with ourselves? And where are the places that demand more accountability?
This is the work of the High Holy Days – a season dedicated to introspection for the sake of improvement. It begins with cheshbon nefesh or soul-searching, and it continues with real tefillah. Over the course of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we will say many prayers, and my hope is that we will find at least a few moments where we lose ourselves in true tefillah.
As we enter the High Holy Days season, my prayer is that we open ourselves up to ourselves, that we allow ourselves the chance to examine what too often we keep hidden from even ourselves, and that through our exploration and soul-searching, we allow ourselves to engage in real prayer.
Wishing you a Shana Tova u’Metukah, a happy and sweet new year.