Rosh Hashanah Gems: Prayer Insights

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Rosh Hashanah Gems 5772 - 15 pages of prayer insights

These Rosh Hashanah Gems are filled with new, inspiring material that explain and elucidate many of the prayers we say on this holiday. They are intended to both entertain and educate the audience between prayers. They are rich with Jewish wisdom, wit and joy, and will help bring greater meaning to both committed Jews and casual congregants. Below is a synopsis of the Gems.

The Evening Service

Melt Down the Saints (p.30)
In the Shema prayer, we are commanded to love G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. What does that mean? How do we express this love? Should we retreat into mystical ecstasy? Should we become mountaintop saints?   A marvels story about Oliver Cromwell of seventeenth century England and his bold vision provides us with an apt metaphor to understanding the profundity and meaning of Jewish saintliness.

The Morning Service

The Posture of Prayer (p.100)
Stand up; sit down. Please rise; please be seated. How much of the service is following directions and listening to the cantor sing and the rabbi pontificate? This nugget nudges the congregant to become more than a spectator. A humorous anecdote about a fumbling worshipper and a quip about America's favorite pastime helps us see what it means to pray from the depths.  "Out of the depths – memamakim, of my heart I call to You G-d…."

The Power of Planting Kindness (p.104)
"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  This popular phrase communicates the idea that we don't get something for nothing. The same idea is expressed in this prayer and illustrated by a powerful story from the Zohar about a man whose life was saved twice. What was his secret? What did he do to have G-d watching his back?

Don't Let Blessings Turn into a Curse (p.106)
There is actually a danger to being blessed by G-d: Material abundance can, after a time, lead to moral bankruptcy and spiritual blindness. Success often breeds arrogance and ingratitude. And arrogance can lead to idolatry, of which the worst form is worship of ourselves and our own accomplishments. The antidote to this malady can be found in a moving tale about an innocent child and the lesson he taught his smug father about the true meaning of wealth.

 L'Chayim: To Life! (p.117)
What is the most important word in the entire Machzor? I think everyone would agree that we could make a good argument for l'chayim — life. As we recite in every Amidah prayer throughout the High Holidays: Remember us, l'chayim for life, King who delights in life". But really we are asking for much more than life, we are praying: "G-d, Zochreinu l'chayim, remember us in the year to come with many opportunities to say "L'chayim!..."

My Brakes, My Horn (p.123)
A humorous tale about an Israeli mechanic teaches us about the discipline we need in order to live a more meaningful and fulfilled life. Find out how to escape earthly mire to heavenly beauty by examining three dimensions of the shofar: its sound, its shape, and the letters that make up its name.

Vision of Hope (p.128)
A person without faith may live a fine and ethical life, but the philosophy of atheism is ultimately one of despair.  Why so? Well, we'll find the answer by looking at the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Then we'll see how the Jewish vision of the Universe rescues us from that despair. Furthermore, with the Jewish vision we don't merely live a decent life. We live a life of joy. As this prayer express it: "The righteous will see this and be glad, the upright will rejoice, and the pious will exult in song."

Our Father, Our Teacher (p.152)
In Avinu Malkenu, we speak to G-d calling Him both Avinu, our Father, who is loving and caring, and Malkenu, our King who is all powerful and demanding. We ask G-d to combine these attributes of paternal love and royal majesty and to deal with us through His attribute of mercy. The dual nature of this relationship is captured with a wonderful story about a small shtetl in Eastern Europe.

The Musaf Service

The Shofar, Plato's Metaphor and the Soul (p.208)
Plato has a metaphor that comes strikingly close to explaining the message of the shofar.  He compares human being on earth to energetic horses. The horses represent unbridled human desires. The driver is likened to the qualities of understanding, which rule over our impulses. The driver falls asleep but something jolts him awake…There is, however, a key difference between the shofar and Plato's metaphor. We'll look at what the difference is and see how this is beautifully expressed in the Midrash and how this all comes together in this prayer.

The One who Remembers (p.212)
"G-d remembers what is forgotten." One of the key themes of Rosh Hashanah is remembrance. G-d does not forget those who have been abandoned by others. Some of the key verses in this section are taken from the story of Noah's flood, when G-d remembers those who are left behind as the world comes undone, and from the story of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, when G-d hears their cries. G-d remembers us even when we are oppressed or abandoned by others. But G-d not only acts as our memory — he sometimes also represents the absence of memory, forgetfulness. And it is all meant to help us better our lives. In this insight, we will see how forgetfulness can be an unexpected virtue.

We Write In the Book of Life (p.223)
Friends, we don't come to shul and say to G-d "While You've got the Book of Life open, could I peek at the final chapter to see how it comes out? And if not the last chapter, can I at least peek at next Friday's stock tables?"  But if we did, I imagine that G-d would tell us that there is really nothing there to look at. The next chapter of our lives has yet to be written. The only pages in our Book of Our Life that have been filled are the ones we already know about, the ones we've already written. And even the bad story lines in those chapters, G-d says, can be wiped away. This is what we will chant in one of the most powerful of all the High Holiday prayers, Unetaneh Tokef. In this insight, we will explore the profound and revolutionary themes contained in this momentous prayer.

Two Pieces of Paper (p.224)
The Hebrew novelist and Nobel laureate, Shmuel Agnon, once sat down at his desk, and scribbled a few words on a piece of paper while the news cameras flashed. After the crowds left, a friend casually walked over to his desk to see what he had written. It turned out to be a quote from the High Holiday service, part of the prayer which follows the U'netaneh Tokef. The 18th century Chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichov said that every person should carry two instructions with him at all times. We will see how both these stories have one thing in common — they teach us how to surmount one of life's greatest challenges and remind us that there is always some special mission for each of us, something in this world that you, and only you, can accomplish today.

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