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Prayer, and the Averting of the Severe Decree

Rosh Hashanah 5776 (September 13, 2015)

Prayer, and the Averting of the Severe Decree

On New Year’s Day the decree is inscribed and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who shall attain the measure of a person’s days and who shall not attain it; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword, and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall have rest and who shall go wandering; who shall be tranquil and who shall be disturbed; who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted; who shall become poor and who shall become rich; who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted. But repentance [teshuvah], prayer [tefillah], and righteousness [tzedakah] avert the severe decree.

With these words the traditional Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah powerfully summarizes the message of the High Holidays. The world and all its inhabitants stand poised between life and death, and we, the people of Israel, come into the presence of God and seek to “avert the severe decree” -- for our own lives, yes, but even more for our people as a whole, and for the wounded world in which we serve as kohanim.

Without teshuvah and tzedakah, our High Holiday tefillah is empty. But without tefillah, our High Holiday teshuvah and tzedakah are but frail human attempts at self-improvement and social action. Tefillah expresses the meaning of our teshuvah and tzedakah, and so it is tefillah that I will consider this evening.

How does tefillah “avert the severe decree”?

The greatest Jewish teacher of prayer in the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, focuses on the way prayer transforms the one who prays.

…we all suffer from an egocentric predicament. Our soul tends to confine itself to its own ideas, interests, and emotions…It is precisely the function of prayer to overcome that predicament, to see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel. It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. (“The Spirit of Jewish Prayer” 105-6)

Writing about the Alaynu prayer, which beseeches God to establish His reign in the world, and which originated as a High Holiday prayer, Heschel says this: inner vision, an intense dreaming for God--the reflection of the Divine intentions in the soul of man. We dream of a time ‘when the world will be perfected under the Kingship of God...’ We anticipate the fulfillment of the hope shared by both God and man. To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.” (MQG 19)

We “dream in league with God,” and this shapes what we value and aspire to accomplish in the world.

One of the finest books on Jewish prayer in recent decades was written by one of Heschel’s students. He says this:

People want to feel close to God. They want to express their feelings, their fears, their hopes...They want to ease their sorrows by placing them within a larger framework of meaning. They want to feel that their life has meaning and that they are part of a historic entity, rooted in the past and with a promise for the future...But ultimately prayer is also intended to have an effect on the individual and his or her actions. It makes us aware of the world, of nature, of history, of God’s role in history, of the nature of God and His demands upon us...One should emerge not only spiritually enriched from prayer but also morally purified... (Hammer 3-4)

Once again, the chief effect of prayer is in changing the one who prays, in making us better people. When applied to the High Holidays, this means that we “avert the severe decree” by becoming the sort of people who are worthy of a better outcome in the coming year. Likewise, our improved conduct will make the world around us worthy of a better outcome.

This view of prayer is full of wisdom and insight. Jewish prayer does transform us. It does “shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.” It does enable us to focus our thoughts and energies on God. But is that all that it does? Is that the only way, or even the primary way, that our prayer in these days “averts the severe decree”?

The words of the traditional Musaf liturgy imply far more than this. According to the Torah, Jewish tradition, and the Besorah, tefillah affects not only us but God--and in affecting God, it also affects the world.

After Israel sins by worshipping a golden calf, God says to Moses: “Now therefore let me alone, that my anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). But Moses refuses to “let God alone”; instead, he prays and argues with God, and ultimately persuades him to spare the people. A midrash, cited by Rashi, asks why God says “let me alone.” It answers that “He opened a door for him and informed him that the matter [indeed] depended upon him [Moses], that if he [Moses] would pray for them, He [God] would not destroy them.”

“The matter depended upon him.” What Moses does at this point will make all the difference. Moses decides to pray for Israel--to not let God alone--and so God reveals his thirteen attributes of mercy, and puts them into effect by renewing His covenant with Israel. And as a result, we are here this Rosh Hashanah, and we will repeat those thirteen attributes of mercy as part of our own prayer.

“The matter depended upon him.” If this is true for Moses, how much more so for Messiah Yeshua! Moses was willing to die rather than see his people perish; Yeshua did die in order to achieve the same end. He prayed that God would forgive those responsible for his death--and that inclues all of us!

Our prayer as Jews does change us, and we should be grateful for its transforming power. But as Messianic Jews we cannot but realize, along with Rashi, that our prayer does more than change us. It also affects the world by affecting God. Yeshua prayed, and his Father answered. Yeshua prays still, and his Father answers still. Yeshua commands us to pray with him, and God answers those prayers as well. Our tefillah in Yeshua “averts the severe decree.”

The greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, wrote the following concerning prayer:

Let us approach the subject [of prayer] from the given fact that God answers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word ‘answer’ means” (Barth, Prayer, 13)

God is the Father of Yeshua the Messiah, and that very man Yeshua has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Yeshua the Messiah...God cannot fail to answer, since it is Yeshua the Messiah who prays. (14)

“The matter depended upon him.” That “him” is now “us.” Will we pray for the Jewish people, that the severe decree be averted? Will we pray for the Church? Will we pray for our country, and for the State of Israel? Will we pray for the refugees fleeing the violence and chaos of the Middle East?

Will we “dream in league with God” of “a time ‘when the world will be perfected under the Kingship of God...’”--and then do more than “dream,” but pray as though the matter depends upon our prayer? We cannot usher in the Kingdom of God. But God will not do it without us.

We pray that 5776 will be a year of sweetness and blessing--not just for us, but for all. May our prayer be united with the prayer of the risen Messiah, and be received with favor at the throne on high--to avert the severe decree, and to activate God’s thirteen attributes of mercy.

Shana tova -- and may we all be inscribed for life!

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