The Paradox of Our Prayers

The machzor for Rosh HaShanah contains many prayers which petition G‑d that (for example) “we be remembered and inscribed in the Book of life, blessing, peace and prosper­ity....” In addition to these communal prayers, many people add personal requests for various material blessings.

Is it proper to pray for these things? Our Sages1 teach that on Rosh HaShanah G‑d asks mankind to “proclaim Me as King over you.” In the midst of a mortal king’s coronation, what subject would dare approach his sovereign with a pri­vate request? Yet on Rosh HaShanah, while acknowledging G‑d’s sovereignty, we also turn to Him with prayers for the fulfillment of our material desires. This, despite the view of the Zohar2 that a person who makes such requests during the Days of Awe resembles a parasitic leech crying, “Give, give!”

Still, these petitions are part of the liturgy for Rosh HaShanah. The very same authority who instituted the prayer, “Reign over the entire world in Your glory,” also included the request that G‑d “inscribe us in the Book of Life.”

A similar paradox relates to the concept of prayer in gen­eral. In his discussion of prayer, the Rambam writes3 that the mitzvah to pray is derived from the Torah’s commandment,4 “And you shall serve Him with all your heart.” Our Sages ask,5 “Which is the service of the heart? — This is prayer.” The Rambam goes on to say that “this commandment obli­gates every person to... petition [G‑d] for all his needs.”6 How can asking G‑d to provide for one’s needs be called “service of the heart”?

On Rosh HaShanah this question is intensified, because Rosh HaShanah is “the head of the year,” the time for renew­ing the core of our relationship with G‑d. Since during this time we all pray more earnestly than usual, the content of our prayers is all the more significant.

Chanah’s Prayer

The question of what to pray for can be answered by analyzing the story of Chanah the prophetess, which is the Haftorah recited on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.7 Chanah had been childless for many years. Each year, she and her husband Elkanah would journey to the Sanctuary at Shiloh. One year, embittered by her barrenness, Chanah left the sacrificial feast, entered the Sanctuary and opened her heart in prayer for a son.8

And it came to pass that as she prayed at length before G‑d... only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And Eli thought her to be drunk.

And Eli said to her, “How long will you be drunk? Put away your wine.” “No, my lord,” replied Chanah. “I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have not drunk wine or strong drink; I have poured out my soul before G‑d...”

And Eli answered, “Go in peace. May the G‑d of Israel grant your request....”9

Eli was the High Priest and the judge of the entire Jewish people. Considering his wisdom and experience, why did he immediately judge Chanah so harshly instead of trying to clarify the true nature of her feelings?

Furthermore, given that the Tanach does not usually dwell on negative matters,10 why was Eli’s error of judgment recorded for posterity? Finally, why was this particular nar­rative chosen as the Haftorah for Rosh HaShanah?

“I Poured Out My Soul”

In order to appreciate the significance of this narrative, we must understand that Eli never regarded Chanah as liter­ally drunk; otherwise, he would have had her removed from the Sanctuary.

Eli heard Chanah’s prayer and perceived her sincerity. When he accused her of drunkenness, he was speaking figu­ratively. He could not understand how Chanah — standing before G‑d, in the holy Sanctuary — could think of herself and ask for a son. He considered her to be intoxicated by her personal desires, immoderately given to material things.

To this mistaken perception of her motivation, Chanah replied, “I am not drunk.” (I.e., “I did not want anything for myself.”) Rather, “I poured out my soul before G‑d.” (I.e., “My desire came from the very depths of my being.”)

“Their Soul Longs Within”

Physical desires are not always motivated by selfishness. Although a person may think he wants material objects as ends in themselves, his desire may actually be rooted in the depths of his soul.

Everything in the world contains sparks of G‑dliness which are concealed by the material nature of the world. Mankind has been given the task of refining the material and revealing its innate G‑dliness. Every individual is destined to elevate certain sparks, and this divine service is necessary for his personal growth. If these G‑dly energies are not elevated, that individual’s soul remains incomplete.

The Baal Shem Tov expounded this concept in his inter­pretation11 of the verse,12 “Hungry and thirsty, their soul longs within.” The Baal Shem Tov asks, “Why are they hungry and thirsty? — Because ‘their soul longs within.’ Their souls seek a bond with the G‑dly energy contained in the food and drink.”

We may be unaware of the spiritual motivation underly­ing our physical desires and consider them to be physiologi­cal, or psychological, finding all sorts of reasons to describe what we want and why we want it. In truth, however, a deeper driving force motivates our will. Why does a Jew want children, possessions, or material success? — Because his soul has an unarticulated desire to fulfill the G‑dly purpose associated with these seemingly material blessings.

Hence Chanah’s prayer. Chanah was not at all motivated by self-concern. This may be seen from her vow to dedicate her son “to G‑d all the days of his life.”13 In “pour[ing] out her soul before G‑d,” she did not express any self-centered desire, but the inner motivation of her soul.

Accordingly, as soon as Eli heard Chanah’s explanation he responded with a blessing, asking that Chanah be granted the opportunity to bring the innermost desire of her soul to fruition.14

A Dwelling Among Mortals

With this understanding of Chanah’s prayer, we can now resolve the questions raised regarding the Rosh HaShanah prayers. On Rosh HaShanah, we focus on the purpose of creation — G‑d’s desire to have a dwelling place among mor­tals.15 G‑d does not seek sovereignty over spiritual beings, but over mortal men who live their lives amid material concerns.

Man’s desire for physical well-being may be seen as an extension of his acceptance of G‑d’s sovereignty, not as a negation of it. A person cannot serve G‑d properly if he is troubled by material concerns.16 In order to continue his efforts to construct a dwelling for G‑d in this material world, he asks for health and prosperity. These are not selfish requests. Rather, his desire for material well-being is rooted in G‑d’s desire for a dwelling place among mortals.17

“May He Raise High the Standard of His Anointed”

The Haftorah of Rosh HaShanah rises to a crescendo with Chanah’s second prayer — a jubilant outpouring of thanks­giving to G‑d for having fulfilled her request. This second prayer concludes, “May He raise high the standard of His anointed” (lit., “...of His Mashiach”).18

This concluding phrase is the point of connection between Chanah’s two prayers, because in the Era of the Redemption, it will be openly manifest that the world is G‑d’s dwelling and that there is no conflict between the material and the spiritual.

From Chanah’s first prayer, we learn that a person’s desire for material things can reflect a spiritual commitment to di­vine service. From her second prayer, we see the ultimate di­rection and purpose of that service — the coming of the era when19 “there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor competition, for good things will flow in abundance and all the delights will be as freely available as dust.... ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.’”20 May this become manifest in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,Vol. XIX,Rosh HaShanah and Vav Tishrei