Judaism: Does G-d Need our Rosh Hashannah Prayers?
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur comprise so many prayers, so much restatement of sacrifices, so much theology. The long services fill two whole prayer books. They occupy hours of our time. They make us alternately sit, stand, kneel and beat our breasts.
Those who don’t believe in acts of worship dismiss it all as mumbo-jumbo and wonder why they’ve come. Those with a more positive view have to admit it’s all rather a pain – to use the liturgy’s own vocabulary, an exercise in self-affliction.
Question: Why bother? Does God really need it all?
Answer: A God who is – by definition – eternal and perfect cannot possibly be short of anything. Our prayer, praise and piety don’t make Him any more eternal, any more perfect, any more powerful.
Our talk of holiness doesn’t do anything for Him, but it does something for us – it raises our sights.
God doesn’t need our prayers, but He needs to know that we take our lives seriously.
He doesn’t need our praise, but He needs to know that we acknowledge that it is He that makes the ultimate decisions.
He doesn’t need our sacrifices, but He needs to know that we are ready to dedicate something to His service.
He doesn’t need our kneeling, but He needs to know that we are capable of humility. And so much depends on our attitudes to other people.
He forgives us if we forgive others. He loves us if we love others. He hears our voice if we listen to others.
Why do we have to spend so long in the synagogue? It’s better there than in the commercial cut-throat contexts where we constantly seek to get an advantage over others, better than in proceedings that are coarse, vulgar, slimy or salacious. The language the synagogue speaks is clean, pure, holy, kindly, compassionate, moral, modest and elevated. The atmosphere of the synagogue is a good place to be.
See you in shule!
There is a vivid picture in the Mishnah Sanhedrin (Sanh. 46a). After elaborating the details of court procedures and penalties and explaining which offences in ancient times entailed capital punishment, the text tells us how the offender was executed.
In a rare Mishnaic excursion into theology, God is now brought into the picture. The offender obviously feels pain... and apparently God does too. He complains that His arm and head hurt.
We know of course that references to God having bodily parts cannot be taken literally. They are metaphors. In our case the Mishnah says that if God feels pain when a sinner is suffering, all the more does He hurt when a righteous person suffers. The Bible puts into His mouth the words, “I am with him in (his) trouble” (Psalm 91:15).
Why does the Mishnah speak of His arm and head feeling pain? These are the two parts of the human body on which we place tefillin. The Talmud, in another aggadic (poetic) passage says that God too, so to speak, wears tefillin (Ber. 7a). Divine tefillin show that God and Israel are bound together, just as human tefillin notionally bind the Jewish male to God in loyalty and love.
A story is told of two friends who were sitting together and one said, “Do you love me?” “Of course”, came the reply. The first one asked, “So where do I hurt?” The other replied, “How should I know?” His friend said sadly, “If you don’t know where I hurt, how can you love me?” The same goes with God. When we hurt He feels pain; when we feel better, He does too.
The Mishnah passage contributes to our understanding of suffering in that the arm symbolises physical pain whilst the head represents depression or other areas of mental pain.
In our generation we know how the whole person is affected by whatever problems we happen to have... and here we are talking about two thousand years ago.
May the year ahead spare us, and God, from suffering, sorrow and sighing.
An Ethic of World Government
Jewish thinking tries to balance nationalism and universalism. Alenu, which originates in the Rosh HaShanah Mussaf service, illustrates the balance.
Its first paragraph is nationalistic, saying in effect: “God, You have made us different, special and unique”.
The second paragraph is universalistic: “God, You have made many nations; may Your rule extend over them all”.
Both themes figure throughout Rosh HaShanah liturgy and the universalistic theme seems to prevail: “Our God and God of our fathers, reign in Your glory over the whole universe”. God’s concern is global: “You remember the deeds of nations”. A wonderful ideal – HaShem as the God of the world, all nations ascending the mountain of the Lord, peace on earth as it is in Heaven, no wars or weapons (Isa.2:4, Micah 4:3).
What stops the dream from becoming a reality? Some nations reject outright the idea of the Biblical God. Those who accept the God idea don’t want Him to mix into their affairs. Even Israel, which pays lip service to the Creator, is scared of clerical domination.
Surely God Himself has an opinion, and it might be this:
“I have been here a long time, and I can wait patiently until the nations decide to call upon My Name. In the meantime let them at least jointly decide to live by My will: ‘Do not kill (especially your own people)’,
‘Do not steal, Do not commit adultery, Do not bear false witness...’,
‘Lay not your hand on the lad (let children be children and grow up in joy)’, ‘
Support the falling’,
‘Have just weights and measures’,
‘Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly’,
‘Keep away from a false word’,
‘Study, teach and wonder...’ Achieve these things, make the world a Garden of Eden, and I will bless you and remember you unto life.”
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