Our role model for how to pray is one of the great women of Jewish history — Chana, whose life story is told by the Book of Samuel.
The Talmud (Brachot 31a) learns its most important insights on how to pray from Chana, who was unable to fall pregnant and came to the Temple to pray. The verse describes her prayers as follows, “And Chana was speaking from her heart. Only her lips moved but her voice was not heard.” (Samuel 1:1-13). We learn from Chana to pray in such a way that only we can hear the words which we say. The Amidah — the centrepiece of all of our prayers — is known as the “silent prayer”. It brings a profound sense of silence and tranquillity into our lives, and provides a few precious moments each day to meditate on and to reinforce our spiritual connection to G-d and to reflect on who we are. We do so in G-d’s presence and connect with Him through our reflection. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the origin of the Hebrew word for prayer — “tefillah” is “lehitpaleil”, which means to self-reflect. The silence of prayer allows us to do exactly that in the presence of G-d.
We also learn from Chana about the depth of sincerity required for prayer. The verse says that “Chana was speaking from her heart.” When we connect with G-d in our prayers we need to speak from the heart. It needs to be a deep spiritual and emotional experience, in which we have an immediate and direct encounter with G-d Himself. This direct connection is one of the important secrets of prayer. One of our great Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer, was nearing the end of his life and his students gathered around him to ask him to share some of the wisdom he had gleaned over the years (Brachot 28b). One of the things Rabbi Eliezer shared with his students was the secret of prayer. He said, “When you pray, know before Whom you are standing.” Let us take the opportunity when we pray to reflect on the awesome privilege that we have of being able to engage directly with G-d in an intimate private conversation.
From Chana we learn of the spiritual intensity and emotional inspiration that comes from the experience of prayer. But there is another dimension to prayer as well, and that is that prayer is not only a personal experience, but a communal one as well. As Jews we come together to pray in shul. We come together as a community in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, in a spirit of unity. The words of our prayers have been composed by our great sages and prophets using the plural. We don’t only pray for ourselves. We pray for everyone together. In our prayers before G-d we cannot be self-centred. The experience of prayer is about transcending self – transcending and connecting with G-d, and transcending our own self-interests to be able to see and feel for the people around us. The Talmud teaches about the great merit of praying for another person. We need to see the people around us, feel their needs, their trials and their tribulations; have empathy and compassion and then to pray for them in the same way that we pray for ourselves.
Over this Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we will be spending many hours in shul praying. Let us embrace this experience and ensure that it is a truly a personal and spiritual experience and an experience of self-transcendence and care and connection with the community. And let us go further and make prayer a daily part of our lives. The siddur is a treasure of spiritual connection, composed by our great prophets and sages, and we are blessed to have wonderful shuls. Let us embrace these blessings and may 5779 be a year of personal transformation through the power of prayer. And may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year.