A funny thing happened to me in shul last year during the High Holy Days. Standing for hours with the machzor (High Holy Days prayerbook) in my hand, I found myself talking to God. What is more, I was sure God was listening.
Clearly, I had prayed before. I have loved the traditional liturgy for many years, prayed every day since I was a teenager, always especially loved the High Holy Days. Yet last year something very different happened. I found myself, as it were, face to face with God (it is so hard to find words to describe these things), really examining my life, looking deeply at where I had been, where I wanted to go in my life and what I needed to do to get there.
By the end of Yom Kippur I knew something profound had happened. Now, looking back over the year, I know my prayers were answered.
So, this year, I began to wonder: How do I approach the holidays this time, now that I believe in the power of prayer in an entirely different way? These days are called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe; this year it all feels particularly awesome. Having received a kind of answer to my prayer, I bring such gratitude to these days and such a sense of expectation. What should I pray for this year? Do I expect that, once again, the gates of prayer will be wide open? Dare I hope?
In the midst of this personal preparation for the holidays, I opened to this week's parashah, Nitzavim, which is meant to be read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.
Was it my distorted imagination, or could it be? Suddenly, Nitzavim presented itself to me as an invitation to deep personal prayer during the Yamim Noraim. Listen:
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer, to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God" (Deut. 29:9-11).
All the Jews together, standing in one place. All kinds of Jews — young and old, rich and poor, pious and irreverent, all gathered together. To me this seemed not only a description of the Jewish people gathered at a single point in history, hearing Moshe's farewell address and poised to enter the Land of Israel. But I also saw in it a picture of shuls everywhere, overflowing with Jews of every stripe, who gathered on these holy days for all sorts of their own reasons.
And just when I thought I had gone overboard in finding contemporary connections with the parashah, I discovered that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev himself saw these verses as a description of Rosh Hashanah. I grew bolder, and I read on. Listen again.
"Even if you are cast out to the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you; from there God will fetch you" (Deut. 30:41). Even when you find yourself a million miles away, bored to tears, distracted, disaffected, alienated, closed down — even in that distant place, God can find you and bring you back, on these most sacred and awesome days, to a place of openness, of relationship, of prayer, of blessing.
"Surely, this mitzvah that I command you this day is not baffling for you; nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, `Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it" (Deut. 30:11-14). So many people think prayer is not for them. It is a distant discipline, a quaint feature of our grandparents' lives or a somewhat threatening feature of some fundamentalist group, Jewish or otherwise. Even those of us who feel comfortable in synagogue may still not feel we know how to enter into deep conversation with God and our own souls, even on these most holy days.
But the parashah says this state is really not so hard to access. You can talk? Then you can pray. You can hope? You can wish? You can dream? You can imagine? You can pray. It is not far from you. It is as close as your breath, as your dreams, your hopes and fears.
May these Days of Awe be days of deep prayer and blessing, for us and for all the world. Amen.