Since this is the season of confession, I want to admit to two things. For many years, I have been jealous of people who can not only pray but also get into the groove of prayer. And I’m terrified of the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana is an odd time of the year for me. My father died two days before the holiday after a long illness and was buried on the eve of the Jewish New Year. Somewhere in the midst of his sickness, I lost my will to pray.
It did not help that my shiva was truncated to just a few hours and then the needs of the community took over—that is, the power of coming together as a community was first and foremost. And so I stood up in front of hundreds of people and publicly said the Mourner’s Kaddish for the first time in my life. I was hardly comforted. Instead, I felt raw and even more grief-stricken. Here I was when immersion into prayer is at its most intense, and I could barely utter a word to, or toward, God. But I continued to say the Kaddish for my father throughout the year. Mostly I did it to reconnect with him posthumously. “Do the deed and the feelings will follow,” said a wise friend. I waited.
The story of Hannah https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hannah-bible, for whom spontaneous prayer—praying from the heart—was said to have originated, has some significance for me. Hannah’s grief generated an outpouring of supplication to God for a long-awaited child. She spoke directly to God, summoning God’s presence for a deep conversation.
I took my concerns about my inability to pray to my rabbi, and she said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had the same apprehensions about prayer. He would walk in the woods and speak out loud to God. She said I should not think of talking to God as a one-way conversation, but to think of God as a sounding board. I tried it. As my rabbi predicted, it felt awkward. And then it turned into something I decidedly did not want to happen: it became a litany of complaints. It turns out I was angry with God. And so praying to God was still a non-starter for me.
Although I am mostly unable to pray, I frequently attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. I let the words, which have been with me since my day school days, wash over me. I once stood with others and recited the Amidah or the standing prayer with kavana—intention. Now I glance at the 18 blessings that comprise this longish prayer. Many phrases jump out at me, but I don’t utter them in a coherent pattern. As for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, another learned friend told me that if a machzor or High Holiday prayer book is doing its job, I could turn my attention to the margins and read the commentaries—modern and ancient—to engage with the holiday. That sort of worked, until it didn’t.
This year I went in search of something that would not exactly replace prayer, but would heavily supplement it for me. I found the “Hebrew College High Holiday Companion” published by the college, and it offered me something I didn’t even know I was searching for: accessibility. Rabbi Daniel Klein, editor of the Companion, confirmed my feeling. In a recent telephone interview, he told me, “The Companion is intended to be an actual companion to the machzor as well as to accompany someone who is yearning through the holidays.”
Yearning. The word resonates. It’s Hannah praying. It’s the subtext of Dr. Judith Kates’ beautiful micro-essay on Hannah and her groundbreaking outpouring to God. Kates writes: “We can be grateful that the rabbis of the Talmud chose to include the story of Hannah, the beginning of the biblical book of Samuel, for us to read as the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana. It plunges us into an experience of heartfelt, individual prayer, which can guide us toward finding our own voices in the midst of community.” With that observation, my small still voice—the voice that shakily said the Kaddish publicly for my father a day after he was buried— had resonance and value.
But there is still the terror of the holidays for me. The drama of “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?” makes me anxious. In her essay on U’netaneh Tokef, the prayer that directly asks those dreaded questions and gives us no choice but to face our mortality, Rabbi Suzanne Offit presents words of comfort and redemption in a lyrical prose poem. She asserts, “Perhaps there is a quiet moment amidst all the words we say/ on these days/ When we allow ourselves to come more fully into this awareness./We imagine that the judgment of our lives will be sealed at the/end of Yom Kippur./And in facing death, we face the limits of our own lives./We are beckoned to become our own judge./There is time./And now is the time.”
Klein offers a further observation: “The holidays are like various forms of prayer. For some people reciting all the words of the liturgy on a given morning or afternoon resonates with their souls. Other people are more calibrated for silence.”
Silence. All of my adult life, the inability to pray has been partly about my discomfort with God’s silence. Indeed, prayer can feel like a monologue. But what if it is a dialogue with a strong, silent God? It takes imagination and faith to believe that. This High Holiday season I will reconcile with God and not be afraid of jumpstarting my faith with an out loud conversation with Him/Her/Them. God is listening, and I am too.