To pray alone on Rosh Hashanah?
Prayer is never alone. Prayer, to borrow from the Greek philosopher Plotinus, is the flight of the alone to the Alone. At a minimum, prayer is always two.
If I end up praying alone on Rosh Hashanah, and I certainly hope I will not, but if it works out that way, I will need to remind myself that prayer in essence is not human-directed; I will need to deflect the idea that prayer’s purpose is community building or communal communing, or a time for simple socialization.
The essence of prayer is not to get closer to people, but closer to G-d.
Not to keep the family together, but to keep the soul together.
Not to live horizontally, but vertically.
There is a critical communal (“horizontal”) component to Jewish prayer: minyan. If I end up without a minyan this Rosh Hashanah, I too will rue its absence. Minyan represents a microcosm of the Jewish people as a whole. Minyan links us not just to the Jews we’re actually praying with but to all other Jews — the entire Jewish people. Minyan is prayer with Klal Yisrael.
That said, as Jews pray with a minyan, they pray to G-d. They pray not to build Jewish community, but to build from it. To aim beyond it. To stretch above it. To reach the Reality Who created it.
Jewish community does not give a human direction to prayer; it gives a launching pad to prayer.
To pray is more than to pray, whether alone at home or in the synagogue with a minyan. To pray is more than to recite words, to assume an attitude of devotion, to think about the really important things of life.
These alone are not prayer.
Prayer is to do all these things in the felt presence of the Life-Giver and Life-Taker — the Source of Sanctity. Prayer is to reach beyond oneself to the Master of the World. The point of prayer is prayer.
This is not a tautology. It is a reminder that prayer, at a minimum, is always two.
Prayer, arguably, is the most difficult act of human existence.
People are not born with the skill. It must be learned. It takes years to perfect — and it’s never really perfected.
Within a minyan, prayer is being alone with G-d and together with the Jewish people: the holiness of the Jewish people in the presence of G-d.
Put another way, the real action in the synagogue is not up front. Not with the rabbi. Not with the cantor. Not with the sermon or Torah reading.
But with the Jew under G-d.
Jewish prayer is essentially a G-d-centered enterprise. So even if the minyan component is missing this Rosh Hashanah, the essence of prayer will not be missing.
The timing and themes of Jewish prayer parallel the timing and themes of the sacrifices in the ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem, where the sense of being in the felt presence of the Life-Giver and Life-Taker was overwhelming. There is an immense difference between prayer and animal sacrifice — obviously. Prayer: words and self-generated emotion. Sacrifice: blood and externally generated emotion. A difference! But the post-Temple Jewish sages wished never to sever the link to the Jewish past. Babylonians and Romans could sever the physical link — the Temples — but the sages made certain they could never sever the historical link or the spiritual link.
And so, our morning and afternoon prayers (Shacharit and Minchah) are timed to correspond to the hours when the morning and afternoon sacrifices were offered in the Temple. The prayers added to Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah and other holiday services correspond not only to the timing of the sacrifices, but to their themes — reflected in the prayers’ wording.
Notice how we call these prayers “services”? When we go to the synagogue, including on Rosh Hashanah, we go to “services.” This word, rather unconsciously used to connote prayer, is a direct translation of the word used to connote the sacrificial order, avodah. Prayer corresponds to avodah, “services.”
The point of the sages’ parallel of prayer and Temple is to make clear that prayer, like the service in the ancient Temples, is vertical.
The flight of the alone to the Alone.
Prayer today, at home or in the synagogue, alone or on Zoom, in or out of a minyan, by myself or physically alongside my fellow Jews, is vertical.
That never changes, coronavirus or no, Temple or no.
I wish you a year of health, prosperity, and meaningful prayer.
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