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The Psychology Of Our Prayers

  • Rosh Hashanah
  • 5770

The Psychology of Our Prayers

By Dr. Arnold M. Eisen | Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary

posted on September 19, 2009 / 1 Tishrei 5770

Relationship means everything when we are teenagers. We suffer terribly when affection is risked and rebuffed. The loss of our friends' respect can be devastating; being on the outs with those who are in can be sheer misery. Decades later, as adults of long experience, not much changes for most of us in this regard. Even when we are well-settled into friendships, marriages, or parenting, the quality of our connection with the people we care about most in the world has a lot to do with our happiness, our fulfillment in life, and our sense of belonging in the world.

That perhaps explains why the mahzor—always psychologically astute—puts such emphasis upon relationship. At every stage of its work of moving and turning us, it draws on imagery of relationship and urges us to attend to the associations that most matter. If we do not know from experience or observation the particular sort of human bond to which a particular verse or prayer refers, we will surely know the one that follows in the next verse or prayer. If we do not care about these connections to our fellow human beings, however, we stand little chance of finding much in the mahzor that is meaningful or accomplishing much repentance on Yom Kippur. Ignore the human "thou" who stands before us, Martin Buber would say, and the Eternal Thou is unapproachable. Treasure all the instances of the human thou, in all its varieties and surprises; cleave to relationships despite others' insistence on being themselves rather than serving only our desires and responding only to our needs. Do this well, the mahzor seems to say, and you may come to know the joy of being God's treasure and standing in God's presence.

Buber gave twentieth-century Judaism the concept of the "I-Thou" vs. "I-It" relationship. In the former, we are fully present-open to the Other-and as whole as mortality allows; in the latter, we use the Other as means to some end, including the end of being in relationship or having an experience of love. I think of Buber especially at the key points in the Yom Kippur liturgy when we approach the viddui (confessional prayer)-the part of the service that is perhaps most familiar: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu . . . (the music turns slow, solemn, repetitive . . . ). We strike our breasts at each intonation of collective wrongdoing: "we abuse, we betray, we are cruel." The alphabet of confession drives home the point that life is built on these ABCs of sin as surely as the alphabet we read is composed of letters and the music we chant-going down three notes of the scale, time after time-is composed of do-re-mi. It is all so basic, this stuff of sin. We know it well. The question on our minds is whether it is either forgivable or avoidable. Can we do any better next year?

That is why, I think, the liturgical approach to the viddui via ki anu amekha is so essential. The music is very different from what follows it: not solemn but celebratory, a kind of joyous singsong. It proclaims by its simplicity that this too is the basic stuff of life, thank God. "For we are Your people, and You are our God. We are Your children, and You are our Parent . . . " We must be assured of our relationship to God before we pour out our hearts and ask forgiveness. The act of asking pardon is difficult under any circumstances. It requires a great deal of trust, knowledge of the person to whom we are appealing, and self-knowledge of a kind we do not often attain. Before asking God's pardon, we may need hard-to-come-by reassurance of God's presence and concern. Why raise our voices, if God is not listening? Why bare our souls, if God is distant or indifferent? We cannot hope to correct what is broken in our relationships unless we know that these relationships are there to be repaired.

Ki anu amekha seeks to respond to these doubts and provide the assurance that is needed: "You are the One to Whom we speak." And, more important to us at this moment: "We are the ones [whom] You address." These we's, one after another, are utterly crucial to the confessional; indeed, to the entirety of Yom Kippur. We are members of the same people, siblings of the same family, workers for the same Master: congregants gifted with the same portion in God. This gives us voice. It is possible to bear the strain of the day-the relentless assault on our self-worth, our agency, our very ability to repent-only because we perform the work of the day in community. We do not stand alone before God or before the inner demons that must be confronted for teshuvah to succeed. We sing, and we turn and return together.

This lesson is brought home with special clarity in the fine new mahzor, Lev Shalem, of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), both in fresh translations that enable us to see familiar prayers with new eyes and in a range of commentary, ancient and contemporary, that poses new questions and spurs new reflection. The shofar, writes Rabbi Amy Eilberg, "calls us to hear the cries of those among whom we live." It helps to "wake us from our self-absorption." At the conclusion of the confessional service, we receive our final assurance that we are the children of a loving Parent. The congregation joins in one of the most beloved moments of the day, Avinu Malkeinu, chanted as a waltz in minor key. The RA mahzor supplies an alternative translation that features a host of relationship-names for God taken from other points in the High Holiday liturgy: "Our Redeemer, Our Provider, Our Guardian, Our Helper, Seeker after us, Our Beloved, Who watches over us." There are many more-and there could be thousands. "The ineffable God is made known to us through an infinite variety of images."

Most of all, it seems, that God is not so much made known as brought near. This occurs, if it occurs, when we reach out in relationship, trusting that a hand will be there to meet ours in return.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.

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