How Can I Become Closer To God
The Meaning Of Hannah’s Prayer
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How can I attain closeness with a God who is so beyond my comprehension? Why would the Creator of the Universe care about my prayers? Is God even listening? Especially on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we deal with this seeming contradiction: is God our King, or our parent?
One barrier we face in approaching prayer is the feeling that God is so holy that there are no grounds for connection between us. How could limited, flawed human beings possibly reach the infinite Creator through our prayers? The question becomes even more poignant when our prayers are dealing with our very human, messy life circumstances. How can we relate these experiences to God?
The Biblical model for answering these questions is Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. Not only does God answer Hannah’s prayer for a child, but the Talmud looks to her as the paradigm for prayer.
Rabbi Fohrman suggests that we may find guidance from the song of Hannah. This video course, created for the High Holidays, takes a deep dive into Hannah’s prayer in the book of Samuel and explores the concepts of holiness, closeness with God, and the real possibility of prayer.
You’ll soon discover that God’s loftiness is just the thing that makes a relationship with Him all the more attainable, and you’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Take a look.
Ok. Hi, everybody! It is that time of the year again, the days of awe. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us. You are going to go to services. You gonna go to shul, synagogue, temple, whatever it is you call it. But you are going to spend a good deal of your day praying, more than perhaps on any other day of the year. And how are you going to feel about this?
How Do We Get Close To A Holy God?
So, speaking personally, I have always felt a kind of a lingering sense of frustration about this. Frustration isn't the nicest of things to feel on the High Holidays. But here is where I was coming from. The Machzor seems to demand two almost contradictory things from us at the same time. The first thing is a sense of closeness and vulnerability.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — these are days when you are really supposed to pour out your heart to God, in a very visceral way. You are supposed to talk about your hopes and your fears for the year ahead. You are supposed to make a real accounting of the year behind you. You are supposed to be there in the moment. Doing that takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of energy if I can talk that way to a friend; all the more so if I'm supposed to be approaching the Master of the Universe.
But now, here is the second, almost contradictory thing that the Machzor demands of us. It tries to force us into this raw, visceral recognition that the being that we are confronting on these days of awe — it's not your buddy, it's the Master of the Universe.
And the Machzor makes sure that I really get that.
I am told over and over, in the words of the Machzor, how high, mighty, and removed God is. How He lives in the realm of Angels. How He's Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh - Holy, Holy, and Holy!
Indeed, the section of the Amidah - the central prayer of our services that gets expanded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is what we know as Kedushah - the Holiness section. But “holiness” is so remote. It's such an abstract concept. Who talks about holiness these days?
Holiness is like white shrouds, angels, and choruses. I don't know what holiness is. I’m supposed to relate to holiness? Feel vulnerable, close? What does holiness has to do with me? How do I reach out to a God who is the Master of all, who's got better things on His mind than my trifling concerns? Who's got the Andromeda Galaxy to worry about? What does this God have to do with me?
So, it's not like I can't focus on a holy God. I can do that if I muster up enough energy. It's not like I can't focus on a God who perhaps I could be intimate and close to. I could do that also, maybe, if I can muster up enough energy. But to do both at the same time? It's like holding two completely opposite conceptions in my head that arepulling me into two different directions.
The problem boils down to the language of one of the central prayers in Rosh Hashanah, "Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father, Our King." A father is very different than a King. How do you hold both of those in your head at the same time? It seems like that's what the Machzor is forcing me to do. And so, it's so easy to give up, abandon the quest, resolve to just be bored, and to get it over with.
How do I take what it is that the Machzor gives me and use it, somehow, to forge a connection with a God who seems beyond my comprehension? I would like to suggest to you in these videos that maybe we get some clues here to help us out of this dilemma from one of the biblical texts that we read on Rosh Hashanah in synagogue. It's the story of Hannah.
The Paradigm Of Hannah's Prayer
Hannah is a woman who was childless. She begs God for a child. Interestingly, her prayer becomes the paradigm of Jewish prayer, the Amidah - the central silent prayer which we say every single day. That prayer in rabbinic tradition is actually modeled after Hannah's prayer.
So, it seems like whatever else we are going to say about Hannah's prayer, she got it right — or at least the Rabbis thought she got it right. So if we read her story on Rosh Hashanah, maybe she in a way is helping us understand how to pray. I mean, we spend hours and hours praying today; shouldn't we look to Hannah for guidance?
And if we do look to Hannah for guidance, we find some puzzling things. Her prayer is in many ways counter-intuitive, not least what she tells us about holiness. Holiness really was that conundrum that we talked about before — the thing we found so irrelevant. Well, Hannah talks about it, too. She talks about it right here.
In Chapter 2 in the book of Samuel, Hannah has her child. God has answered her prayer. She is exultant and jubilant. And the first thing she says in this rapturous song of thanksgiving is… is what? What would you say if you were Hannah?
Well, I would say this would be the perfect time to compose a Hallmark card to God: "God, I feel so close to You. I spoke and You actually listened. I have this child. He has such beautiful blue eyes. Thank you so much. How could I ever repay you?" And this would be wonderful sentiments. But strangely, these are not really the sentiments that Hannah seems to express in what she actually says.
As a matter of fact, if you look at what she actually says, in a strange kind of way, it seems to be the opposite of this. She does not speak about her sense of closeness to the Almighty. Instead, she speaks of His loftiness, of His kedushah, of His holiness. Holiness! There is that word again. There is that word that we were struggling with. What does it really mean?
What Is The Meaning Of Hannah's Prayer?
It seems to mean the opposite of closeness. In Jewish tradition, holiness has always been associated with separateness. “Lehakdish” means not just to consecrate, to make holy, but to set aside. God is so different from us. He is so very different than the universe itself. He is the Master of the Universe, but He is outside of it all, outside of space, outside of time. He is neither matter nor energy.
Why is she talking about all this stuff? She is talking about stuff that has nothing to do with closeness. It is the opposite of closeness. It is not what she is feeling. And what's worse than this is she is not just giving us a theological riff on holiness. What she is actually saying, when you actually read the word, seems almost nonsensical. Here is what she says: “Ein kadosh kaHashem ki ein biltecha,” "There is no one as holy as God because there is none but You." “V'ein tzur k'Elokeinu.” "There is no rock like our God."
Ok, there are a bunch of problems here. We can just kind of label them 1, 2, and 3. No. 1, the most fundamental problem maybe is: What she is saying just doesn't seem to be true. There is no one but God? Like God is …the only thing that exists? I mean, I exists, you exist, that tree exists, the plants exists, that school over there exists... so why is Hannah basing her argument on some sort of fantastical notion that there is nothing that exists but God?
But even if we accept that — OK, there is nothing that exists but God — that notion just sort of takes all the wind out of the sails of this great compliment that she is giving God. She is saying, "God, there is no one as holy as you." Ah, that sounds like a really nice compliment. But then, she just deflates it by saying, "because there is nothing but You." Obviously, if there is nothing but You in the world, so by definition, You are the holiest thing around, what else can compete? Why is that such a wonderful compliment?
And then, finally, even if we get past all these problems, what does any of this have to do with God's holiness? I mean, I'm supposed to understand God's holiness because of these mental gymnastics? Because there is no one but God and somehow that explains to me what God's holiness is? I mean, what does that have to do with the holiness?
Is God Closer Than We Think?
I think Hannah is giving us a window into what holiness really means. She is actually attacking this issue that we've been struggling with. The issue of balancing closeness and distance with this God that we can't comprehend.
The key, I believe, is a subtle problem in her words which, if you look carefully, you will see. "There is no one as holy as God because there is none but You." There is a pronoun shift here. She is starting in third person. Third person is the language we use for distance: I'm not even talking to You, I'm talking about You. "There is no one as holy as God."
But then, she moves to a position of closeness. Second person - I'm talking to You. "There is no one as holy as God because there is none but You."
She is helping us breach distance and closeness. She is teaching us how.