Rosh Hashana has changed meaning to me over the years, as I am sure it has for most people. Growing up, my father was the Ba’al Toekah, and so the excitement of davening was not so much for the prayer part, but rather for the shofar blowing. I have davened in a retreat center for older adults, in multiple shuls in London, and again with my parents in the shul that I grew up in. For the past five years, I have spent Rosh Hashana in Alon Shvut, a Yeshuv in Israel. I would wake up at 5:30 to get to davening, and there was something special about walking around with the wind blowing, and and watching the sunrise as I am davening shacharit.
Something that I remember from all of these places is the way that they prayed. What was sung out loud, what was said quietly, which tunes they used and when. A regular complaint from people when they move to a new shul or there is a new chazen is “they didn’t use my tune”. We all have ideas of what tefilla is and what it should be.
In this morning’s Torah reading we hear about different forms of prayer. In the first few verses, we see that God remembered Sarah, and she gave birth to a son, to Isaac. She goes on to praise God for the great gift that she was given, as it says in verses 6-7:
ותאמר שרה צחק עשה לי אלהים כל השמע יצחק לי. ותאמר מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה כי ילדתי בן לזקניו.
And Sarah said, “God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!”
She was able to see the miracle the happened before her eyes, and her initial reaction was to thank God and praise the amazement that was there.
Further on in the Torah reading, we hear about Hagar being sent out of the house of Abraham. She goes into the desert, and while there she runs out of water. She does not know what to do. She does not know how to help her child or herself, and so she calls out to God in despair. I can almost imagine the image of her leaving Yishmael under a tiny shrub so there is shade, walking a bit further away and just breaking down in tears in the vast desert.
In the Haftorah we hear about Chana. Chana also could not have children, and she goes to the mishkan to pray to God to plead that she should be able to conceive. She has a different type of prayer than both Sarah and Hagar. She is praying in pain, but not in despair. She goes to the “House of God”, but does not call out loud. She prays silently, just that her lips are moving. It is a private prayer between herself and God.
There are times that each of these models of prayer is fitting. Rosh Hashana we spend quite a bit of time in shul praying. At times we are given the opportunity to have a quiet conversation with God, pleading for the things that we need. At times we are given the opportunity to call out in pain, both our individual pain that we might be suffering, but also for the communal and global pain that we bare witness to. And we are given the chance to praise God and sing out.
May this year be filled with times to sing out and praise God, but also may we find the words in our times of need.