Rav Shai Finkelstein, Rav, Kehilat Nitzanim


Tefilah – prayer – constitutes an important and essential part of our religious life, as it is one of the ways to connect to the Master of the World. However, tefilah has always posed a spiritual challenge to mankind, and especially so in the modern world. (See Tosofot Iyun Tefilah on Rosh Hashanah 16b: “…Rav Mona said: I am grateful to my head, for it knows to bow on its own when I get to modim,” which means that Rav Mona didn’t really pay attention to his tefilah). And if it is so challenging, how, really, can we maintain our focus during tefilah? How in actuality can we channel our prayer so that we feel it? How are we able to experience the sensation of connecting to God through prayer, rather than feeling that we are fulfilling the command as a routine? Especially on this day of Rosh Hashana that stands for the first day of the year, the first prayers of the year, we are obligated to reflect on the nature of prayer, its character and its expressions.


In order to deepen the inquiry into the essence of tefilah, we must examine the prayer of Chana. This tefilah embodies the basis for many of the halachot of Shemoneh Esrei, as is seen in the Gemara (Brachot 31a): 


Rav Hamnuna said, “Many important halachot can be inferred from Chana’s prayer, e.g., ‘and Chana spoke to her heart’ – from here we learn that one who prays must direct their heart; ‘only her lips moved’ – from here we learn that one must articulate the words with their lips; ‘and her voice was not heard’ – from here we learn that it is forbidden to raise one’s voice while praying; ‘and Eli assumed she was drunk’ – from here we learn that one who is inebriated is forbidden to pray. 


An additional reason to explore Chana’s prayer is that according to the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 10b): On Rosh Hashana, Sarah, Rachel and Chana were ‘visited,’ i.e., their prayers were answered affirmatively. If so, then there is a special connection between Chana’s prayer and this day of Rosh Hashana.


Chana’s tefilah is described in Sefer Shmuel Aleph (1:10-13). Today let us try to examine the way in which Chana chose to daven, and the messages we can derive for our generation.


The background to Chana’s prayer is the continuous pain that she suffered from her sister-wife Penina: “Her rival provoked her, again and again” (Shmuel 1 1:6; ArtScroll translation). Chana felt alone and forsaken. Even though her husband thinks that he is as good for her as ten children, she knows and feels her pain. Chana sees herself defined by the phrase, “And Chana has no children.” Chana’s essence and personality were so degraded that she was ‘bitter of spirit’ – severely depressed. Bitterness signifies disappointment due to her inability to fulfill her desire to be “a mother in Israel.” Chana took no comfort or pleasure in food or drink, and even from her husband’s love she found no solace. Chana felt like Naomi in her time, when she warned her compatriots, “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant one), call me Mara (embittered one), for God has made it very bitter for me (Rut, 1:20). 


With this mental burden, Chana “prays to God and cries profusely.” The expression, literally “prays on (al) Hashem,” is explained by the Malbim: “She davened with complete intent (kavana sheleima) to Hashem alone.” Chana internalized that only Hashem could help her, because to some extent, she lost all hope (“כלו כל הקיצין” –   see Sanhedrin 97b)  – neither medicine, nor science, nor technology would help to fulfill her desire to be a Mother in Israel, and therefore she turned to God alone. This feeling is one that is unfamiliar to modern man, for he is used to finding solutions to his problems and troubles. This is perhaps one of the most significant issues regarding prayer in the modern world, because man, for the most part, feels no lack of power and does not feel that “only Hashem can save him.” 


Chana’s situation, and her understanding of to whom she must turn, causes her to cry – an action that marks the pouring out of her soul from within, and from the smashing of all the separations that divide a person from their Creator. Chana davens “lifnei Hashem” – before God – as she senses His presence in her life, and His ability to help her. This perception leads Chana to establish the status of one who prays before Hashem, as it appears in her words: “See the suffering of Your maidservant” (1:11). Chana feels that she is the servant and Hashem is the Master, her eyes depend on God’s mercy like a maid or a slave who look to their master. “Our eyes depend on You, until You are gracious to us and release our verdict as clear as light” (Rosh Hashana musaf, Hayom harat olam).


Despite all the intense feelings that Chana experiences, she “speaks to her heart.” She does not startle or move erratically – signifying the absence of an external reaction – rather she turns internally and shapes a conversation with herself and between her and the Master of the Universe.  She bears a silent prayer – “only her lips move, but her voice is not heard” (1:13) – and this prayer rips through to the heavens. Eli fails to understand the meaning of her prayer. He considers her a drunkard and does not fathom the depth of her actions. Chana teaches us a way of prayer that stems from suffering, pain and disappointment, a prayer that emerges from a lack of options. This type of prayer is, to a certain extent, foreign to modern man, since such a feeling is uncommon, arising only in extreme situations. If so, how can we connect it to the concept of prayer in our time?


The Gemara in Brachot (32a) describes the tefilah of Moshe following the Chet HaEgel. This type of prayer differs in purpose from Chana’s prayer: “And now, leave me alone, and let my anger burn against them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Said Rabbi Abahu: If this had not been written (in the Torah), it would be impossible to say it. It teaches us that Moshe grabbed God, as a person would grab his friend by his clothing, and he said before Him, “Master of the Universe, I will not leave You alone until You pardon and forgive them.” Moshe’s prayer does not stem from disappointment or suffering, but rather from utilizing an opportunity, from self-sacrifice and from endangering himself. Moshe responds to the challenge that God placed before him, he assertively prays to God, and he insists that God could not fail to answer his request. Moshe, in his prayer, demands that Hashem forgive the people of Israel; he does not request that of Hashem. Moshe teaches us another kind of tefilah, a prayer that comes from mesirat nefesh for the nation of Israel and its circumstances. This is not a personal prayer, but rather a national prayer – one within which, perhaps, a more direct path will be found to the heart of the Jew living in the modern world, especially in the Land of Israel.


There are two types of tefilah: Chana’s prayer – a personal entreaty flowing from pain and suffering, from personal bitterness and from disappointment due to the lack of self-fulfillment. This is a prayer of crying, of release and of clinging. However, Moshe’s prayer is “like one who grabs his friend,” that represents equality and, perhaps we can say, even a certain degree of superiority over Hashem. Moshe does not intend to leave God alone until He forgives Am Yisrael, even if they are not worthy.


It seems to me that we need both types of tefilah at this time. We have personal needs which require us to pray in the mode of Chana in her day. However, there are national needs – as a nation dwelling in its land, fighting for its security – for which we must demand from God, and not leave God alone until He fulfills the requests of our hearts. Chana’s prayer is the foundation for Shemona Esrei, but Moshe’s prayer provides us with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which do not return empty. Moshe’s tefilah “caused” Hashem, according to Rabbi Yochanan in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 17b), to teach Moshe the order of prayer. Rabbi Yochanan said: “If it had been written in the Torah, it would have been impossible to say. This teaches us that Hashem wrapped Himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, they should perform this procedure before me, and I will forgive them.”

Moshe’s tefilah ensures pardon for generations, for it was performed with mesirat nefesh and on behalf of all of Israel. We were privileged to return to the land of Israel, and we as a people need to grow and to improve our prayers not just as individuals but as a nation. The mesirat nefesh that we witness in our generation is one of the testimonies to our transformation from individuals to a nation, and from focussing on only personal needs to concentrating on national needs. This is not to say that we should hide from personal needs, but rather we should include them with the other prayers of the nation. On this day we focus on the world: “Reign over the entire world in your honor,” “All inhabitants of the land will recognize and know…” Our prayers today target the nation and the world,  “to teach us that Moshe grabbed Hakadosh Baruch Hu like a person grabs his friend by his clothes and says in front of Him, “Master of the Universe, I will not leave You until You pardon and forgive them.