Rosh HaShana 2015 / 5776
Sarah Yehudit Schneider


A true story: A woman brings yards of lacy fabric and the sketch of a wedding gown to a seamstress who has nearly two weeks to finish the job. The dressmaker (a stranger till that day) prays while she cuts and sews, asking Hashem to guide her work.  The dressmaker thinks to herself, really I should be praying for this couple to be happy, fruitful on all levels, and that peace should fill their hearts and home…and I really do want that for them but, honestly, my primary concern is the dress.  She reasons: Prayer is called service of the heart, which means it must be honest. It is fair for me to concentrate on the wedding dress whose responsibility is in my hands. I really do wish the couple well and will certainly close with that prayer. But if I am frank, the prayer for HaShem to guide my work—to produce a beautiful dress that will please my customer—that prayer engages my kishkes. It is more compelling, perhaps because my talent my and reputation are invested in that task.

Eliezer posits the world was created in Tishrey [on Rosh Hashana] while R. Yehoshua argues that it was Nissan [on Pesach].[1] R. Luria (Ari) asserts that both are true: The thought of creation arose in the Cosmic Mind on Tishrey, says he, while its embodiment as a material reality (in the world of Asiya) occurred in Nissan.[2] Rosh HaShana thus commemorates the glorious vision-of-perfection which inspired the labor-of-creation that culminates in messianic times.

Each year, on Rosh Hashana, HaShem formulates a new, updated mini-vision of the highest that is possible for creation this coming year (and for every individual in it).[3]  As above, so below, says R. Tsadok. Our Rosh HaShana preparations should also include a prayer vision of who we want to become and what we hope to accomplish this coming new year. That’s what it means to be in sync with the times.

Like the seamstress in the story above, we should start with the prayers that are closest to heart, that touch core, that could make or break our quality of life, that express the primal yearnings of our soul.  The Baal Shem Tov’s advice is to pray for personal redemption before voicing our collective prayers, presumably because the former engages our kishkes and its enthusiasm will infuse our subsequent prayers as well.[4]

That’s the reality and it’s the right place to begin…but it’s not yet the ideal. As we grow, wisen and hopefully enlighten, our perspective on the world stretches accordingly.  We see that we are also cells in a larger organism, a higher order unity called Kenesset Yisrael (the mystical body of Israel). Our zone of self-interest now includes all these others encompassed by our newly expanded I-center—the larger organism (or nation) of which we are a part. There’s no escaping the fact, our wellbeing is entangled with theirs.

Awakened to this truth we cultivate a two-tiered identity: 1) Our personal self, the one that carries our name, birthday, and the detailed chronology of our life and, 2) A transpersonal self that identifies with the higher order unity, in this case the people Israel, who share an historic mission to shine the light of ethical monotheism into the world.

The Baal Shem Tov suggests a prayer practice to bridge these two identities (the personal and collective) in a way that exploits the strengths of each. The first step is to formulate our personal prayer vision as described above, focusing on the lacks and yearnings that really are closest to heart. The prayer’s power to pull down the answer to its petition depends upon many factors like sincerity, passion, precision-of-articulation, strength-of-longing, merit-of-the petitioner, etc. (There are also factors, called higher mazal that lie beyond the range of prayerful influence).[5]

Nevertheless, says the Baal Shem Tov, one way to increase the potency of a prayer is to join ourselves with all those others who are longing for this very same thing.[6] Nature abhors a vacuum. An empty space exerts a suction that draws into itself whatever is suited to fill that space. This is also the mechanism of prayer.  Our personal longings are spaces in our psyche that can hold more and long to do so.  They are spiritual vacuums that draw toward themselves whatever can fill them. Prayer turns this into a conscious process by expressing our preference of how we hope that need will be met. The suction power of my personal longing is whatever it is. Yet if I join myself to all the others who are lacking this very same thing, and speak my prayer as a class action suit (representing both them and me), the suction power of that prayer increases exponentially.

This method of prayer enjoys the best of both worlds (the personal and the collective): 1) On a personal scale it expresses the authentic priorities of my particular life which makes it truly a “service of the heart.” 2) On a collective scale it musters the might that comes from numbers.

There is third advantage as well:  3) From a spiritual perspective this is one understanding of what it means to pray for the Shekhina (which is considered the most evolved of all prayers). The Shekhina, as the indwelling Presence (the soul-of-all-things) shares the existential tribulations of creation. Each of us is a symptom bearer of a larger cosmic (systemic) lack in the Shekhina Herself.  When we pray for ourselves and for the klall the Shekhina acquires a voice. The Baal Shem Tov attributes his power of prayer to this method of petition.[7] The individual’s travail triggers a prayer for the Shekhina’s relief which is also, equally, a prayer for the klal.[8]

Curiously, it is not pure altruism that prompts this shift.  When I remember that others suffer from the same lack that prompts my own prayer, and I acknowledge their pain in my plea, it increases the odds of my prayer’s success. In this area altruism and self-interest converge.

Our Rosh Hashana liturgy cultivates this collective awareness for nearly all of its prayers are spoken in the plural, “we.” Again and again we pray for the “house of Israel.” The liturgy insists that we expand our prayer focus to include our entire nation within its bounds. But it doesn’t stop there. Our New Year’s prayer vision, formulated by the rabbis who codified the liturgy, is encapsulated by four short paragraphs inserted into the kedusha prayer of the Amida and recited 23 times in the course of our High Holy Days.

There we pray explicitly for the whole world—and for every creature in it.

“…Instill Your awe upon all Your works, and Your reverence upon all that You have created. Let all works venerate You and all creatures prostrate themselves before You. Let them all fuse into a single unified alliance, that performs Your will with a whole-heart.”

 Here again the motivation is not purely altruistic. Kabbala teaches that the entirety of creation is a single, universe-encompassing Adam.[9] And since every person (and nation) is an I-center that views the world with itself at the center, so is this true for Jews as well.[10]  From a kabbalistic perspective, the inner soul-core of this cosmic Adam is its Jewish component.[11]  Surrounding that are concentric layers of non-Jews, animals, plants and minerals.[12] Yet these layers are not discrete. Each overlaps the other, for there can be no discontinuity in the unfolding of worlds.[13] If breach would occur, everything below it would instantly poof out of existence.

And so it goes for this universe-encompassing Adam. We are aching for mashiach.  We are striving and praying and yearning and laboring to bring mashich now. But if we think that (in so doing) we can leave the madding world behind then we are sorely mistaken. If we do not prepare the folks below to take our place, then we cannot ascend. We cannot leave an empty space in our wake. And that rule applies all the way down to the last straggler. For us to move up a notch every level below must also be ready to take a forward step. The messianic era is a planetary happening. We cannot enjoy our redemption unless we bring the world along.

The rabbis understood this when they composed our Rosh Hashana liturgy with its central entreaty—repeated like a prayer-mantra—expressing our hope that every creature find its way to the light.

This is not just from altruism (which is arguably optional), but from a more compelling incentive, because our fates are entwined, because we are “a single unified alliance.” We also cannot force the nations into line with our vision, for the prayer is explicit: each person (Jew and gentile alike) must embrace his/her truth and “perform G-d’s will [for them] with a whole-heart.”

 Let us take our liturgy to heart.  Let it put us through changes.  Let its vision seep into our bones and enlighten our I-center. Let it awaken a prayer for redemption that wells up from our kishkes and expands to include the whole world because we really do get that our fate is entangled with theirs.

Blessings for a good, sweet, healthy, joyful, peaceful, mission-clarifying, prayer-answering, soul-healing, truth-prevailing, desire-rectifying, consciousness-expanding, mashiach-bringing New Year.


[1] TB RH 10b/11a.

[2] Ari, Shaar HaKavvanot, RH drush 1.

[3[Tsidkat haTsadik 169.

[4] Sefer Baal Shem Tove (SBST), Shmot 5.

[5[See R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol. 4, pps. 98-109. These cosmic and determinative factors may block the prayer’s fulfillment because our soul could not accomplish its mission if this prayer was actually answered or, perhaps, the world would be diverted from its course. Take, for example, Moshe’s prayer to enter the land.

[6] SBST Gen. 189, Ve’ara 3, par. 2, Achari 2)

[7] SBST, Amud Tefila, MMC 149.

[8] SBST, MMC 149.

[9] R. Shlomo Elyahuv (Leshem), Drush Olam HaTohu, prt 1, p.13 (lft col).

[10] Sarah Yehudit Schneider, You Are What You HateA Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies, p. 121- 133.

[11] Zohar 1:47a

[12] Sulam on Zohar 1:13a (paragraph 227)

[13] Like a chain where the lowest edge of the upper link extends beneath the upper edge of the lower link.

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