Rabbi Mike Commins teaches, “Prayer expresses desire. Holy desire: an end to an illness or for a peaceful world, to live in joy and to behave well, to find connection with God.”
Tonight, we usher in The Yamim Nora’im, these days of Awe, which are a time for reflection and transformation. Unlike many other Jewish holidays, the main address of celebration and commemoration is the synagogue and the primary activity of the community is tefillah—prayer. On the High Holidays, prayer is the vehicle for us to express those– our desires for change and transformation; our desires for a new start on this New Year; our desires to become more deeply aligned with our intentions. It is a vehicle for us to experience change and transformation.
The intense focus of the prayer on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur provides opportunities for meaning, connection, transcendence. It also can create particular challenges for us. Even with the beautiful singing of niggunim (wordless melodies) and the personal reflections, we can become alienated or frustrated. For some, we lack familiarity with the prayers, many of which come around only twice a year, or with the melodies. Others among us may stumble over God-imagery in the ancient prayers we have inherited or may not feel our theology- or lack of belief- aligns with the words that are written on the pages. Some of us are here for each other and the words of the prayerbook are just what comes with this special communitytime.
Yet, we are spending this evening and will continue to invest many hours of our life over the next week and a half in synagogue with a machzor – high holiday prayerbook– in our hands. How might we make our experience of prayer meaningful, connective? How might we connect to the liturgy in what that will help us open our hearts, so that we can do that deep work of soul-searching that is at the heart of the holidays?
Tonight, I want to share a teaching that has given depth to my understanding the experience of prayer on the High Holy Days. It is one I have found myself coming back to of late—because I need to hear its message of simplicity and gratitude. The teaching is from perhaps an unexpected source: Anne Lamott, who is a contemporary author of both secular and spiritual books and a progressive, religious Christian. Lamott argues that there are only three essential prayers and in the words of our tradition “all the rest is commentary.” Her three prayers are actually just three words:
In the book by that title, Lamott says, “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.”
Lamott argues that these three simple prayers are all a person needs to experience transcendence and to make prayer “work.” Whether said privately or in a group, whether one believes in a God that actively hears or not, praying the words “Help. Thanks. Wow” helps us to experience connection, relief, and hope. Lamott says, “These [prayers are] all I ever need, besides the silence, the pain, and the pause sufficient for me to stop, close my eyes, and turn inward.” (8)
You may be wondering how Lamott’s teaching relates to the journey of prayer that we take on the High Holidays. I mean, just take a look at our prayerbook! No, I mean really—take a look at the machzor (HH prayerbook) in your hands or that is resting nearby. Feel the weight of this prayerbook in your hands. Prayers upon prayers upon prayers, words upon words upon words. Did you know that our prayerbook has eleven different versions of the Amidah, our standing prayer?
If you were to go to the last page of our machzor, you will find that there are one thousand two hundred and seventy five pages in this prayerbook.
Three words. One thousand two hundred and seventy pages. Clearly, Jews are not so skilled at this keeping prayer simple idea!
Instead of a guidebook for personal prayer, Jewish tradition gives us thousands of years of history, philosophy, poetry, theology brought together in one book – one giant book!
But like in the car rear view mirror, “objects in view are much closer than they appear.” Reading Lamott’s book, I realized that nearly all of the prayers we say on these holidays are meditations on these three core themes. Granted, we may have a lot more words than Lamott might believe is necessary, but fundamentally our prayers are expressions of desire for connection – they are aimed at helping us say, “Help me!” “Thanks for everything!” and “Wow.” And thinking about our liturgy in this way may help bring us back to those basics – to the key ideas – so that prayer can be the opening, the calling out – the profound experience it is meant to be.
Let’s look at each of Lamott’s simple prayers and find some of the connections to High Holiday liturgy —
As Lamott describes, HELP is what we say when life seems hopeless; when brokenness, pain, and illness are all around us and sometimes engulf our own lives or the lives of those we love; when fear mounts as we hear a faint but distinguishable drumbeat of war; when we feel we have lost our way. Crying out for help is a natural and healthy response to the realization that we have reached our limits and we know longer know what to do—and we understand that our old habits and ways of being aren’t serving us anymore.
What’s especially powerful about HELP is that just saying it releases us and frees us from the intense pressure we put on ourselves to do and be everything. In Lamott’s words: “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting that you’ve reached a place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin.” (14) When we can call out and say “Help,” we begin our healing.
Asking for “help,” in my mind, is an underlying theme of the High Holiday prayers. Reciting “HaMelech,” asserting God’s sovereignty over the world, or when we bow all the way onto the ground during the Grand Aleynu on Yom Kippur is an invitation to surrender. By standing in the face of what is greater than us, we learn the difficult lesson that we are not completely in control over our lives and our destiny.
Perhaps the most poignant prayer of “HELP” is Avinu Malkenu, our Parent, our Sovereign which we sing throughout the holidays. The haunting melody moves me to tears almost every time I sing it. But the most powerful recitation in my experience is during Neilah, the final service on Yom Kippur. Both exhausted from fasting and spiritually invigorated from the intensity of the day, we recite Avinu Malkenu with all the strength we can muster. At this moment of vulnerability, we call out as if to say: We have fasted, we have done our turning, we have reached out to others, we have reached inside our own souls—we have done everything we can. Now we turn to God and say: help us—help us by granting us forgiveness, help us by shedding some light into our darkness; help us to learn to be better people. We are merely human—we need help from a power greater than ourselves. And in calling out, we feel relief.
Saying “Help” is very, very hard – perhaps especially as progressive Jews who do not necessarily believe in a God that can swoop from the sky and solve our problems. But just because God might not be able to change our fate does not mean that we do not need help- that we don’t need strength, that we don’t need love, confidence – that we don’t need our friends, our community to make it through. And that is especially why it is so important.
Lamott speaks about the many experiences that illicit the prayer “thanks.” Sometimes, she says, it is a simple “woooh” breath of air when we realize something that could have gone south, didn’t and we are standing on solid ground. There is gratitude for the big and little things that make our lives work, like friends and neighbors, good colleagues, good food. And sometimes, just sometimes- a miracle might happen – and we can say “thank you” in the face of life’s difficulties. When we say “Thank you,” we transform from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. With a simple acknowledgment, we find that the orientation of our life and our relationship with the world has shifted.
Those who attend services regularly know that I believe gratitude is foundational to the experience of prayer. And just as find on Shabbat, we find in our High Holiday liturgy those moments (often the same prayers) that get us to “thanks” event when we may not want to say it out loud. After we heap thanks upon thanks, our liturgists invite us to recite:
“Were our mouths oceans of song, our tongues alive with exultation like the water’s waves, our lips filled full of praises like the heaven’s dome, our eyes lit up like sun and moon…we would never have sufficient praise for you, Divine One. Nor could we bless your name enough for even one small measure of the thousands upon thousands of the times of goodness that you have provided for me and those who came before me.”
Beginning our prayer practice with gratitude, we find our way through own self-centeredness and confusion into a sense of ourselves as part of a larger whole.
Gratitude does not always come easily. Perhaps this is especially true on these days of seriousness and self-judgment. Perhaps this is especially true this year that has passed with the horrific events of the world and non-stop national crises. But there it is on page after page of our prayerbook – to help us understand that there is never a moment in which gratitude doesn’t open our soul, that there is never a moment in which thanksgiving does not help us put our life in perspective. And in that spirit, praying “Thanks” on the high holidays helps us ground our teshuvah, our work for change, in what’s working and what’s possible.
Wow is a prayer that expresses our wonder at the world, at the beauty of life and Creation. We say “wow” because as Lamott says, we are “almost speechless, but not quite.” (73) Wow might come in the form of “What a beautiful sunset” or “Wow! Look at those newly blooming tulips.” In this way, Lamott’s simple prayer of “Thanks” is similar to the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings about the stance of prayer as radical amazement and awe. In both cases, saying “wow” is an articulation of our being in world that is much greater than ourselves and of cultivating sensitivity to the small and large miracles that appear in our lives every day.
A prayer of “wow” is what we say tomorrow when we boldly sing, “HaYom Harat Olam!” “WOW! Today the world is being born!” Remember, our liturgy tells us: everything is possible. The instrument of “wow” is the shofar, which rocks us to the core and beckons us to awaken to life and to awaken to responsibility!
Lamott describes another kind of “wow” prayer, an expression of awe at the mystery of life, at facing the unknown. These “wow” moments are more subtle but also very deep.
On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we hear the haunting prayer “Untane Tokef” prayer. We read each year: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who will live and who will die…who shall die by water, who by fire, who by hunger, who by thirst…who shall be humbled and who shall be raised up.” This is an expression of “Wow”– realizing the profundity of what we are up to these high holidays: confronting our own mortality, confronting the mortality of those we love, we stand in awe of the natural forces of life, stand in the presence of the mystery of life and death. In being present to the preciousness of life, we say: Wow, life is precious, time is a gift. Wow, we better start living the life we want, NOW. This “wow” helps us become once again awakened to wonder and to the gift of life.
There are many other examples of Help, Thanks, and Wow throughout the prayer experience of the High Holidays, and I invite you as we join together through the coming days and week, to meander through the prayerbook and see these three themes manifest. I invite you to consider that each prayer is an expression of desire for connection, for gratitude, for amazement.
And if do become overwhelmed or lost or bogged down by the words or unsure of how to connect with the prayers, I invite you to follow Lamott’s advice and “keep your prayer simple.”
Focus on the three prayers:
Help! Help me find a way, a better path.
Thanks! Thank you for this beautiful gift of life, as confusing and difficult as it can be sometimes, I am grateful for it.
Wow! There is so much beauty in the world – despite the pain, the world and this life are truly amazing gifts.
May the journey through these days be one of meaningful and soulful personal and communal prayer. May our entrance into the gates of prayer bring us great meaning and wonder. May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart received and be for a blessing. Amen.