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Rosh HaShanah: Haftarah Reflection-The Power of Praying with Emotion Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Rosh HaShanah Morning—Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Hasidic tale speaks of the Tzanzer Rebbe who was once asked by his students, “What does the Rebbe do before praying?” He answered, “I pray that I may be able to pray properly.”

During these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we come together as a community to express our innermost thoughts and feelings to God. We read that it is tefillah, it is prayer, which, along with repentance and charity, can temper God’s judgment and alter the course of our lives. Therefore it is of utmost importance that we, like the Tzanzer Rebbe, make every effort to pray properly. But what exactly does that mean?

The rabbis teach us that there is more to prayer than the rote recitation of words written thousands of years ago. It is about the feeling and intention, what we call in Hebrew “kavannah”, behind the words that matters. It means delving deeper into the worship experience. This could mean taking a deep, cleansing breath before we pray, closing our eyes so we can concentrate on the words and nothing else, or meditating on the meanings of each prayer before we recite them. Some people focus their energy inwards, while others are a whirlwind of motion and activity, bowing, turning, gesticulating. In the end, prayer is about our connection with God, our attempt to engage God in a relationship. Prayer is an opportunity for us to have a 1:1 with the Eternal, to express our deepest hopes and dreams to the Source of our help and strength. Put simply, a person’s prayer is not accepted unless he puts his heart into his hands.

If we were to search for a biblical example of someone who engaged in this kind of sincere prayer and heartfelt supplication, we would not find it easily. Sure, towering heroes of our tradition like Abraham and Moses speak to God, and even argue with God, but they do not truly pray. Not like the central figure in our Haftarah portion. No. No one prays quite like Hannah.

Our Haftarah portion describes the events which lead to the birth of Samuel, one of our earliest and greatest prophets, but the story truly centers on the emotional and spiritual journey of his mother, Hannah. Like many of our biblical matriarchs, Hannah has difficulty conceiving. She grieves over the fact that she cannot bear children, while her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, has provided him with offspring. Driven to despair by the cruel taunts of Peninnah and the lack of support from her husband, Hannah finds sanctuary in the temple. Overcome with sadness, she cries out to God, tears falling from her eyes. Unbeknownst to her, the priest Eli is watching her and, witnessing her intense and emotional prayers, mistakes her for a drunkard. When confronted and asked to leave, Hannah replies to Eli, “I have drunk no wine or any strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to God.” Taken aback, Eli then prays with Hannah, asking God to bless her with a child. And soon after, the text tells us, God remembers Hannah, and Hannah becomes pregnant, giving birth to the prophet Samuel, who would then dedicate his life to God.

In this stirring narrative, Hannah utters a heartfelt, genuine, supplication to God. In her emotional and rending plea, Hannah is vulnerable, laid bare before God, her suffering overpowering her in a moment of sincere and intense prayer. Through her tears, she became cleansed. Surrendering all her pain and longing to God, she begins to find inner peace and is transformed.

The rabbis note that it is only after Hannah pours out her tears and her heart to God that her prayers are received. It is only when she is completely open and honest with God and herself that God answers her cries.

As we come before God, beseeching the Creator of All for a good and sweet year and to forgive us our wrongdoings, we bring before God our offering of words, but it is not words that God demands of us. Tradition teaches us that God desires our heart.

The rabbis teach us to pray with sincerity and focus, holding nothing back, turning each and every prayer into a heartfelt supplication before God. But this is not at all easy. In fact, being able to consistently pray with heartfelt emotion and intentionality may be impossible to achieve. With everything else going on in our lives, how is it possible to put that much thought and effort into our prayers? When our minds are scattered, how can we concentrate on the divine? Even those of us who consider ourselves “spiritual” or “pious” have off-days when we just cannot find our rhythm. Sometimes we are just not feeling it.

One of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel once confessed, “I am not always in the mood to pray. I do not always have the vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am weak, it gives me strength. When my vision is dim, it gives me insight.” Here we have a true spiritual giant, a rabbi known for his deep sense of religious devotion, speaking of the occasional hardship when it comes to his personal prayers.

Prayer is not meant to be easy. But very few things that are worth anything are easy to obtain. In order to achieve anything of lasting value, we must put in the effort. Prayer is no different. If we want to reap the benefits of worship, if we want to feel moved, if we want to feel connected, if we want to feel transformed, we must struggle, striving ceaselessly until we reach our goal. When we approach God in worship, we must offer God all that is within us, exposing our vulnerability, our sorrows, our fears. Like Hannah, we must learn to pour out our souls to God.

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