Prayers that Reflect our Reality: A Rosh Hashanah for all of Humanity

Prayers that Reflect our Reality: A Rosh Hashanah for all of Humanity

Rabbi Shuki Reich
Rosh Kollel, Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary
Rosh Machon, Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership
Senior Talmud Lecturer, Midreshet Lindenbaum

Rosh Hashanah Prayers: The Universal and the Particular

A common theme of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah is the shifting emphasis between the universal (humanity at large) and the particular (the Jewish People). This can be seen, for example, in these two well-known excerpts from the amidah prayer of Rosh Hashanah, which are recited at every service during the festival:

” …and so that Your awe, Lord our God, be upon all Your works and Your fear upon all You have created.”

and,

“…and so grant honor, God, to Your people.”

The first example highlights the universal, while the latter highlights the particular.

Similarly, this universalistic, particularistic dynamic finds expression in Rosh Hashanah prayers that address the central motif of Rosh Hashanah, God’s Kingship:

“[You] reign over the entire world…”

and,

“… You have chosen us from all the nations…”

Notwithstanding this important balance, the devastating impact of COVID-19 has focused our minds this year toward the universalistic. This virus does not differentiate between the good and the bad, the righteous and the wicked, those who worship God and those who do not, or between the people of Israel and the other nations. Within this context, what are the implications on our experience and understanding of Rosh Hashanah this year?

The Personal and Public Shofar

Just as we have noted the dichotomy between the universal and the particular, one also exists vis-a-vis the individual and the communal.

This finds expression in a difference between the descriptions of Rosh Hashanah in Parshat Emor and Parshat Pinchas. In the former (Leviticus 23:24), we find no reference to the day’s special communal sacrifices, just a cryptic characterization of the day as a Zikhron Teruah, a reference to the sounding of the shofar on that day.

In contrast, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers, 29:1) details the holiday’s sacrifices, indicating an emphasis on the communal.

This distinction illuminates a statement in Tractate Rosh Hashanah (32b), regarding which verses of the Torah should be mentioned in the Zikhronot section of the Musaf prayer: “We do not recite a verse dealing with the remembrance of an individual, even if it is for good.” Instead, the verses of Zikhronot may contain memories of individuals only insofar as they are also public memories.

This is a call to each person to be careful not to consider only himself or herself on Rosh Hashanah. The individual’s personal “zikaron” is to be sublimated to the collective “zikaron.”

In the context of the individual-communal dynamic, we can say that in each blast of the shofar, two sounds are heard: one by the individual and one by the community.

Prayers That Reflect Our Reality

In these tumultuous times, the words of Eliyahu Hanavi (II Chronicles 21:14) are especially pertinent:

“Therefore, the Lord will inflict a great blow upon your people, your sons, your wives and all your possessions.”

We must intensify our attempts to open the Gates of Heaven through our prayers to the Almighty. Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s siddur, in particular, resonates with this moment of universal concern. For example, whereas the standard Ashkenazi text of the “Avinu Malkeinu” litany of supplications reads:

“Our Father, Our King, prevent the plague from Your inheritance (the Jewish People)

Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s siddur reads:

“Our Father, Our King, cease the plague from Your world

Similarly, in a brief prayer recited after Modim d’Rabbanan and before Birkat Kohanim, the standard Ashkenazi text reads:

“Our Father, our King, remember Your mercies, suppress Your anger, and remove pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, plague, misfortune, and every disease, every stumbling block, every contention, every type of disorder; every evil decree and groundless hatred, from us from and all the members of Your covenant.”

In contrast, Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s text concludes on a more universal note:

“…from us and from all of your creation.”

In this spirit, may God protect the Jewish people and all of humanity from the ravages of this insidious virus, heal all of those who are afflicted with it, and may the year 5781 mark the beginning of a healthier era for the entire world.

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