Last week, we discussed a number of
simple ways to begin to get mentally prepared for the High Holidays: hauling
out (or buying) the Rosh
Hashanah prayer book (Machzor)
and browsing through it, reflecting on one's larger purpose in life,
increasing and deepening the practice of formal and informal prayer, Interestingly,
though I wasn't quite sure how I felt about the advice-proffering mode, I
ended up getting several favorable comments on the piece--maybe because
people just inherently prefer the practical to the theoretical, or maybe (I
hope) because people share my desire to
finally, once and for all
preparing for an important event (in this case, Rosh Hashanah) well in
advance of the actual date.
Which brings us to our topic, and more helpful advice. There's one prayer in our daily service which, even more than the rest, tends to be rushed through rather disgracefully--at least on weekday mornings. It comes at the end, when many are already hurriedly putting away their tefillin and scurrying out to their day's business. Yet our Sages placed it at the conclusion of the services precisely because its crucial theme should be fresh in our minds and hearts as we transition to the workaday world outside the synagogue. In the words of one of our great legal commentators, this prayer is meant "to fix firmly in our hearts, before we depart to our homes, the unity of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to strengthen in our hearts the faith that He will remove all forms of idolatry from the earth " (Bach, Orach Chayim: 133)
Another great halakhic authority instructs us to say this prayer "with fear and awe, because all the hosts of heaven are listening, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, stands with His heavenly court, and all of them speak up and respond: 'Fortunate is the people for whom Hashem is G-d." (Mishna Berurah: 132, 2, 8)
Now that we know there's a specific (and distinguished) audience listening to this little prayer, maybe it would be wise to slow down our recitation from here on in.
What prayer are we talking about, and what is its connection to our theme of preparation for the High Holy Days?
Aleinu, of course. Rabbinic sources say it was first composed by Joshua prior to leading the Jewish people into the Holy Land (though it may have been edited later by the Talmudic sage, Rav). Not only does Aleinu highlight one of the most prominent themes of Rosh Hashanah--G-d's absolute Kingship (Malchus) over every aspect of Creation, including our individual lives and worldly fortunes--, but it also actually plays an important role in the Rosh Hashanah service itself. Long before it became incorporated into the daily prayer service (sometime in the Middle Ages), Aleinu held an important place in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, introducing the section of the Musaf service that focuses on G-d's Kingship. It remains there today, as you will see when you open your Machzor.
So, by taking some time in the next few weeks to peruse Aleinu (calmly, over a cup of coffee or herbal tea) and reflect on its themes, you will both be preparing for Rosh Hashanah and deepening your appreciation of a crucial component of our daily prayers.
Before I leave you with the text, I'll just point out one thing worth noting. There is a definite contrast in tone between the two paragraphs of Aleinu. The first paragraph stresses the difference between the Jewish people and the nations of the world with regard to our conception of G-d, and our role in the world; our "chosen" status is highlighted, and defined (in part) by our special obligation, throughout our lives, to ascribe greatness and majesty to G-d and to G-d alone. Lest we, however, conclude mistakenly that the Torah and its message (not to mention its Giver) are concerned with the fate of the Jewish people alone, the second paragraph comes along and stresses the all-inclusive and universalistic goal of Judaism: the eradication of evil from the earth, and the unification of all mankind in serving the One true G-d. As Rabbi Eli Munk writes in The World of Prayer, our separation from the nations is for the sake of preserving "the idea of monotheism unadulterated, till this idea should some day become the common possession of all men." (p. 27)
The world coming together as one: we've
heard it before in nice dreamy pop songs, and even in the mouths of world
leaders at U.N. summits. But I feel more secure putting my faith in
the words of Aleinu, and in the similar expressions of the Rosh Hashanah
service, than in well-meaning secular approximations of messianic longings.
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
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