How Do I Get Closer To God?
What Chanah Teaches Us About How To Pray
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 conundrum: is God our King, or our parent? If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, watch this course.
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 Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel. Not only does God answer Chana’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 Chana. This video course, created for the High Holidays, takes a deep dive into Chana’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.
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?
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.
How Does Prayer Get Us Closer to a Holy God?
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 have 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 are pulling 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.
What Does Hannah's Story Teach Us?
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?
The Paradigm Of Hannah's Prayer
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 a 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 exist, 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?
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.
Is God Closer Than We Think?
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.
A Closer Study of Hannah's Prayer in the Bible
Ok. Let's go back for a moment and take a look at Hannah's story - the story that precedes this mysterious declaration that she makes about the nature of God's holiness.
The Book of Samuel introduces us to the casts of characters; Hannah herself, her husband, her co-wife Peninnah (the woman that Elkanah, her husband, is also married to), and finally, Eli, who was the High Priest in the temple at Shiloh at that time.
So, the book of Samuel begins after setting out this cast of characters with portraying for us a certain kind of equilibrium. It's almost as if it's portraying for us a happy family that is happy, but fragile in a kind of way.
For a while, everything goes smoothly. They go up to the temple in Shiloh, they offer offerings, and Elkanah gives portions of the offerings to everyone in his family.
And everything more or less works.. until one day, the fragile equilibrium slowly comes crashing down; a chain reaction, a disastrous chain reaction, begins with the best of intentions.
Elkanah, convinced that his wife Hannah is in a pitiable position - that she doesn't have any children - and he looks at the situation, that he is offering this offering, and he is giving out all these portions to Peninnah, and one for her and one to all of her children, and then one little portion for Hannah does not seem fair. He loves Hannah.
Ki et-Channah ahev vaHashem sagar rachmah. He loves Hannah and Hannah doesn't have any children. Shouldn't she get an extra portion? So, he gives her one. And what is Peninnah's reaction? Immediately, Peninnah began to taunt Hannah is angry at her. And begins to taunt her specifically for her childlessness, the very reason why Elkanah is favoring her. And then, this becomes the new cycle of events, the new sort of broken equilibrium.
V'chen ya'aseh shanah beshanah. Year after year, whenever they will go to the temple, there was this disaster. Ken tachisenah. Peninnah would taunt Hannah, vativkeh, and Hannah would cry, v'lo tochal, she wouldn't eat anything.
There she was getting this double portion and she wouldn't even eat a morsel. At that point, Elkanah tries to make everything better.
Vayomer lah Elkanah ishah: "Channah, lama tivki? - Hannah, why are you crying?" he says to her.
"V'lamah lo tochli? - Why won't you eat?"
"V'lamah yera levavech? - Why do you look so sad?"
"Halo anochi tov lach me'asarah banim? - I love you. I'm not good enough for you? I'm better than 10 children."
Elkanah doesn't understand. One husband's love, no matter how great, can't compensate for the lack of children's love. It's qualitatively different! It just can't be compensated for.
Look, had Elkanah offered his understanding to Hannah - I understand your pain" - that would be one thing. But, he's actually doing the opposite. He is trying to make that pain go away. He is saying, "Don't feel pain. You are not missing anything. The love of children is compensated by my love. What's wrong?"
But that compensation can't happen, that exchange can't happen. What Elkanah is offering her just doesn't work.
So, here is Hannah. Peninnah turns her back on her. Elkanah understands and loves her, but he isn't helpful. And she goes to the temple and there she meets Eli. She begins to pray. And now, yet another person misunderstands her.
"Vayachsheveha Eli lishkorah." Eli looks at her and sees that her mouth is moving but he can't hear her voice - and he thinks she is drunk. He tells her to stop drinking and to leave.
And with this, we've just exhausted our cast of characters. I mean, who is left? Hannah is utterly isolated. She can find no solace with Peninnah, none with Elkanah, and now none with Eli. Who is really left? There is no one left. Ah, but there is someone left. The only one left is God to whom she turns.
We can get an insight, I think, into the nature of Hannah's prayer by looking at two things that she tells Eli in response to his accusation that she is drunk. Listen to her language to him.
"Vata'an Channah vatomer - Hannah responded to him and said,"
"Lo adoni - No my master,"
"Ishah keshaht-ruach anochi - I am a woman of embittered soul."
"V'yayin v'shechar lo shatiti - I have not been drinking wine or beer."
"Va'eshpoch et-nafshi lifnei Hashem - Instead, I have been pouring my soul out to God."
You listen to her metaphors: what she's really saying is: there wasn't anything been poured into me like drink; instead, if anything, there was pouring out, my soul has been pouring out.
It's not just pouring in and pouring out. It's that the very essence of what she is doing is the opposite of drinking. Drinking is a kind of escape from reality. I am getting in touch with reality in the deepest way imaginable. And you know what? That reality isn't so pretty.
"Al-titen et-amatcha lifnei bat-beliyaal - Don't consider me someone who is a bat-beliyaal, without awe, without yoke – that's how the Rabbis understand it, someone who has no sense of burden, someone who is just throwing off any yokes of responsibility. Ki-merov shichi v'chasi dibarti ad-henah - because if anything what you are seeing is that I just have so much to say, I have so much anger in me. That is why I am speaking this way."
The strangest of defenses to the High Priest to the temple! "Oh no, you don't understand. I'm so angry! That is why I am speaking this way." Anger is something which we normally associate with somebody who is out of control.
She is saying the opposite: "I'm totally in control. I have a complete sense of responsibility, I am not escaping anything. I am not running away from reality. This is reality. You know what my reality is? I'm so angry. I'm sharing that with God."
Hannah's prayer becomes the paradigm of prayer. This is who I am right now. My current experience to be childless, to be completely misunderstood by everyone in this life - You want to know what that is really like? Part of who I am right now includes anger. If I am going to share me with You, part of it is this.
Lessons From Hannah's Prayer
When you are as genuine as you possibly can be, it's the truth.
Chazal even says it: they note that when it says that Hannah prayed to God, it doesn't say that she prayed to God, it says, "v'titpalel al Hashem - she prayed upon or against God." The Gemara in Brachot (31b): "Channah hitichah devarim klapei malah - Hannah spoke brazenly to the Almighty," uvacho tivkei - and cried."
Hannah's prayer is genuineness incarnate. It's a kind of closeness that comes when you bear your soul to someone. "Here I am: the pretty parts of me and the not-so-pretty parts of me."
And somehow, Hannah walks away from that prayer having gotten something. What she has gotten is not yet a child. She doesn't really have an indication yet that she will have one. Yes, Eli blesses her, "May God grant you this child." She doesn't know it's going to happen.
But as she walks away, "vatelech ha'ishah ledarchah vatochal - she left the temple and finally she ate, upaneiha lo-hayu-lah od - and her anger had dissipated."
The woman who wouldn't eat when she was utterly isolated has found a way out of her isolation. There was someone who she could connect with, someone who understood. She sensed that that someone was God.
How Did Hannah's Prayer Bring Her Closer to God?
God was there for her when no one else was. Not even there for her in the sense of answering her prayer; that may or may not come later. There for her in terms of understanding, in terms of accepting who I am. She had the sense that she connected to the Almighty. That is what prayer is all about – connecting in the deepest possible way.
And now, having seen something of Hannah's story, the question that we asked earlier resonates every so deeply: "Why is she telling me about holiness? Why speak about how separate God is, if what Hannah has really experienced is how close God is? She is talking about the wrong thing. Or is she?
I want to suggest to you that Hannah here is revolutionizing the concept of holiness, turning it on its head, helping us to understand this concept in a radically new way. She is telling us something mindboggling, a paradox of paradoxes. The key to the closeness, she is arguing, is understanding the nature of separateness.
Now that seems to make no sense whatsoever. But for Hannah who experienced it firsthand, it makes perfect sense. She encapsulates her insight in nine short words.
I want to suggest that those words were explained, essentially, centuries later by none other than Maimonides in the very first word of his magnum opus the Yad Hazaka, his great code of Jewish law.
I want to come back with you. I want to read the opening to that great work of Maimonides. I think he is telling us what Hannah is saying in these nine words.
Let's come back and look at his words as a way of gaining insight into hers.
The Rambam's Commentary on Hannah's Prayer
If the Rambam is an expansion of Hannah’s words, let’s just remind ourselves for a moment what it is that she said. "Ein Kadosh kaHashem ki ein biltecha v’ein tzur K'Elokeinu." She is saying, “There is no one as holy as God because there is no one but God.” What’s that supposed to mean?
Let’s take a look at this Rambam. The first few paragraphs of the Rambam in Mishnah Torah begin as follows: "Yesod hayesodot v’amod hachachmot – The foundation of all foundations and the source of all wisdom is to know something: to know sheyesh sham matzui rishon, that there is a first existence.”
You know, if you don’t read the Rambam carefully here, you’ll think he is talking about a related philosophical concept, the idea of First Cause. You think he is saying, “Well, there is a First Cause in the universe. The universe wasn’t here going back infinitely in time. There had to have been a First Cause that started it all. That First Cause we call God.” But actually, he talks about a first existence. God as the ground of all being.
V’hu mamtzi kol hanimtza – “this first existence gives rise to all other existence.” The Rambam is speaking in present tense. It’s not that God once upon a time created something a long time ago and now it exists. He's talking about God as the ever present ground of all existence.
What doe it mean to think of it that way, that God constantly is the ground of all being? His existence brings into existence, present tense, all that exists? It means this: v’chol hanimtzaim min shamayim vaaretz umah be’eineihem lo nimtzau ele meamitat himatzo – “Everything that exists," he said, "from heaven and earth, it only exists through the truth of God’s existence.”
Now, these are strange words – “through the truth of God’s existence?” Rambam was using the word "truth" here a little bit differently from the way you and I do. You know, you and I will say "2 + 2 = 4, that’s true; 2 + 2 = 5, that’s false."
Rambam was getting at something slightly differently when he's talking about truth. He is actually talking about what Hannah is talking about. You will hear it again if you skip forward a couple of lines in the Rambam.
Here is what he says: "Ein amitato k’amitat echad mehem – “He is truth, God's truth, is not like the truth of any other creature or any other thing in the entire world.” Again, the Rambam was coming back in a strange way to this word ‘truth’.
You know, you and I think something is either true or it is not true. It’s not like there are different degrees of truth. But, Rambam seems to be saying, yes, there are different degrees of truth. You know, you and I are true, but we are not true like God is true. What exactly does he mean by this?
"Hu levado he’emet – He alone is true."
"Ein la’acher emet kamito – no one is true like He is true."
And finally, H\he tells us, this is really what the Torah means when it says the words, "Ein od milvado – There is none other but He, no one but God.”
Ah, that’s what Hannah said, too. What is really going on here? It all boils down to how the Rambam is using this word, the ‘truth’.
The Truth and Absolute Truth
What does he mean when he says “There is no one but God”, no truth like God is true"? No one exists but God? You and I exist. Again, you know, we’re nothing? That plant exists, the tree exists, that school over there exists; what do you mean there is no but He?
So here is the key. When the Rambam is talking about truth here, he does not mean truth in the sense of 2 + 2 = 4, he means something a little bit different. What he really means by truth is independent existence. Actually, if you think about that, that’s what we all mean by truth.
Take some of our simplest statements about truth, like 2 + 2 = 4. What makes that statement true? So you might say, "Well, 2 + 2 = 4, that’s real, that exists. 2 + 2 = 5 doesn’t exist". But, is that really true?
I mean, let's say you believe 2 + 2 = 5, let’s say Phil believes 2 + 2 = 5, let’s say we have a whole group together of 2 + 2 = 5 believers, and we have great charisma, and we convince half the world that 2 + 2 = 5 and there are these debates, and Fox News does a special on it and NPR and argues with them. You know, the whole world is up in arms. You can’t say 2 + 2 = 5 doesn’t exist! There's a lot of people who believe it. That’s an idea the same way 2 + 2 = 4 is an idea.
But 2 + 2 = 5 does not have any independent existence; only 2 + 2 = 4 does. Think about it: If you took away everyone who believes 2 + 2 = 5, there would no longer be any existence to that idea - but it’s not that way with 2 + 2 = 4.
Even if no one in the world were left who believed that 2 + 2 = 4, that idea would still have existence because it’s true, it just exists, it exists independent of being propped up by anyone believing in it.
Truth, at its core, is independent existence. Everything else can exist, but it’s not an independent existence; it’s propped up.
So, when you say something exists or something is true, you really have to ask yourself: At what level of existence or truth are you talking about?
You know, at some level, dreams exist. I had a dream, it seemed very real, it existed because I thought it - but if you take away my thoughts, if you take away me, the ground of those thoughts, the dream evaporates.
You and me exists, but we are not really independent existence. We happen to exissts because we got created. Our continued existence is only conceivable because there is a prime existence from which we all emanate somehow.
It’s like that joke about the turtles. A guy says to his Professor, "You know, I don’t believe that stuff about the earth being in space and just kind of hanging there. Everyone knows there's a big turtle that holds up the whole earth.” The student's position, of course, is that the earth can’t just be there, it has to be supported by something, it has to be supported by a big turtle.
Anyway, so the professor was kind of shell-shocked by this. (You’ll pardon the pun.) He comes back with the retort, “What’s underneath the turtle?” “It’s another turtle. "And underneath that?" "Professor, you don’t understand, it's turtles all the way down.”
Now look, in our day and age, we do believe that the earth really hangs there, but in some fundamental philosophical way, when we talk about the universe as a whole, when we talk about space and time and matter and energy - where does that come from?
Well, Rambam is saying, “turtles all the way down” doesn’t work. There is a ground of it all. A dynamic prime existence more real than anything we know. We call that existence God. "Ein od milvado – There is none other but God.”
It’s not such a crazy thing to say. It just depends on how you define the bar of existence. Do you mean existing like dreams or do you mean more independent existence? We have more independent existence than dreams. But, when you raise the bar to highest level, only one being exists with absolute independence, the source of all existence itself. That, I think is what Hannah was talking about, too.
Understanding How To Become Closer to God
God is radically different from us - but not because he is less real than you and I, because He is more real than we could ever be. God is radically different from us - but He is not alien to who we are, either. On the contrary, we are closer to Him than we could ever imagine. He is our source. We eternally spring from His existence. Of course I can connect with Him.
When I think of God as the fundamental existence from which I spring, yes, I am filled with a sense of awe, but it’s not the kind of awe that draws me away, it’s the kind of awe that beckons me closer, the kind of awe that allows for closeness, vulnerability, intimacy. Who could understand me better than my source?
Here, one more time, are Hannah’s nine words: "Ein kadosh kaHashem ki ein biltecha – There is no one as holy as God because there is none but You.” God is separate, but He is not more ethereal than you and I. He is more real than you and I.
His separateness consists of Him being the ground of our being, the only One in the entire universe at which the buck stops here. The One who is so real that He is not even tangible. So real that in comparison to His existence, I am but a dream. When it comes to absolutely independent existence, there is truly none but You.
"Ein tzur K'Elokeinu," she concludes, “there is no rock like our God.” The image of rock, of boulder, of sheer wall of granite, is the most foundational thing human beings can imagine in the world of nature. The foundation of all foundations, our source - that kind of separateness is what holiness is all about.
The Meaning of Hannah's Prayer
Hannah does something subtle here. She makes a very subtle shift. "Ein kadosh kaHashem," - as we talked about before, is in third person – “there is no as holy as God.” But the next thing she says, "Ki ein biltecha - there is none but You” - that’s in second person – “there is none but You.” She is talking directly to God. She is moving from third person - distance - to second person. Direct communication! Closeness!
When you start thinking about Kedoshah, holiness, your first sense is that that creates distance. The separateness of God is awe inspiring and I feel like shrinking away... until I realize what holiness truly consists of.
"Ki ein biltecha" – and then, I’m drawn to you; “there is none but You.” You are my source. Of course I can talk to You. Of course You can understand me. Of course I can relate to You directly. It is You. "Ein tzur K'Elokeinu – You are a rock. There is no rock, no source other than You.”
These ideas of Hannah have powerful ramifications in our lives. Some of these are quite surprising.
So Hannah has stated a radical idea that paradoxically, it is God’s separateness, His transcendence, which is not really at odds with closeness but is the bridge towards closeness. It is understanding that transcendence and separateness that gives us a ladder to come close to God.
What I want to show you is that as radical as that idea sounds, it’s actually a foundation of our daily prayers. We say it every day and don’t even realize that we are saying it.
There is a prayer which we often don’t pay that much attention to. Many of us think it’s kind of juvenile because when it is sung in synagogue, it’s usually a little kid who comes up to the bimah and sings it.
It’s at the end of davening, maybe you are taking off your tallits, schmoozing with your friend, thinking about Kiddush when this song is being sung but the song which I am referring to is ‘Adon Olam.’ And it is anything but a juvenile song. It is majestic, powerful, and soul stirring. It is Hannah’s thoughts which animate what this song is really about.
Understanding Adon Olam
Let me take a look at that song with you for just a moment. The song I want to suggest to you, has three main parts to it. Whenever you look at biblical poetry, I think, to help you not get lost with this whole maze of words, it is helpful to just ask yourself, "What are the pieces here and how do the pieces hold together?"
So here, I think, is the first major piece of the song. Let’s try to give it a title in our minds as we go through this. "Adon olam asher malach - The Master of the World, the Master of the Universe who was King, beterem kol yetzir nivra - even before any creature in this whole universe was ever created."
In other words, God is so majestic that even when He was alone in the universe, the only Being that existed in His own lofty realm, in His numinous solitude, there was majesty in that. But He was like a majestic King waiting for a nation. Nothing else existed yet.
"L’et na’asah b’cheftzo kol – that all changed when suddenly there was somethingness out of nothingness. When all came into being according to His will then His Kingship was real. It wasn’t just potential anymore. "Azai melech shmo nikra – Then He could truly be called King."
And now, having talked about a period of time before creation in which God was potentially King, we now fast-forward throughout eons of time to the end, to the very end.
"V’acharei kichlot hakol – and after it’s all over," when the final star has collapsed into a fiery supernova, "l’vado yimloch nora," when there is nothing else anymore, and He is once again alone, 'yimloch nora - He will still be Master, nora, in His awesome solitude. Hu hayah – He was, v’hu hoveh, He is, v’hu yihyeh, He always will be b’tifara in majesty.”
And, this Being, this Creator, the foundation of it all - who is He?
"V’hu echad – He is one. "
"V’ein sheni – There is no two."
But His oneness is different from the oneness that you and I are talking about. Even His oneness is a mystery. "L’hamshil lo – you can’t analogize anything to Him." In that sense, He is one.
You can’t say: "God is kind of like X and Y, He is sort of like this, He is sort of like that. "He is sort of like nothing. He is ultimately beyond anything we can experience.
"L’hamshil lo l’hachbira" – One cannot conceivably attach anything to God, to become part of Him.” The notion of parts with reference to God - it is utter futility to think that way. He is what philosophers call a simple unity, a oneness that cannot be divided. We don’t experience anything like that in our world. In this way too, He is utterly Kadosh, utterly different from us.
Here is my table; it's one table. If I take an axe to this table, it’s two tables. Here is an atom: if I put it in a supercolliding supercollider, all of a sudden, it is many subatomic particles.
Any "one" we have in this world can potentially be a "two". God is a One with no potential to be two. "Bli reishit bli tachlit – He has no beginning, He has no end. V’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah – The very concepts of power and sovereignty are owned by this God. He truly is Master of the Universe."
Now, stop right here. Imagine that ‘Adon Olam’ ended here and we played: What’s next? What’s next with your emotions?
Connections to Hannah's Prayer
So, what do you think of this God? Powerful, alone in solitude, incomprehensible, defining Him, analogizing who he is, utterly impossible. What do you think of this God? He is Kadosh, separate, utterly different than me.
Are you cut off from this God? Couldn’t care less about you? Maybe you don’t care or less about Him. A mighty God, yes - but a personal God?
Listen to the next words. A turning point, an astounding turning point in the song:
"V’hu" – and this God which we’ve just described with everything about Him that is so incomprehensible,
"Eli" – He is not just God, "He is my God."
"V’chai goali – He is my living dynamic Redeemer." He is there for me when I’m in trouble.
"Tzur chevli – He is my rock. "
There is that word from Hannah. My foundation stone - but not just the foundation stone of the universe, my personal foundation stone when I am in trouble.
"B’et tzarah – whenever I found myself in narrowness, He can help me break out of that."
"Hu nisi – He is my banner," I hold Him aloft in times of triumph. I revel in my association with Him.
"Umanos li – in times that are terrible, I find refuge in Him." He is there in my triumphs; He is there in my agony.
"M’nat kosi b’yom ekra – He is my portion all the time." Whenever I call to Him, I find Him there for me.
That is part two. And now, part three. Part three puts together part one and part two and shows what happens when you bring these two together. Because it’s one thing to talk about God as alone, as majestic, and mighty - and it’s another thing to talk about a personal God.
Adon Olam and Hannah's Prayer
Adon Olam’s point is not just that you can talk about a mighty God, and not just that you can talk about a personal God, but these are one and the same.
My personal God is that completely mysterious, astonishing force that is the source of it all. And therefore, every single day, I live my life differently. Here is how:
"B’yado – In his hand"
"Afkid ruchi – I entrust my soul"
"B’et ishan – Every night when I go to sleep"
"V’a’irah– And I wake up"
I believe the way to read that is with an exclamation mark.
"B’et ishan; v’a’irah! "– “And lo and behold, God vindicates my trust in Him every morning! I wake up and you know what? I have my soul back because He gave it back to me.”
Every single day, I engage in an incredible act of faith almost without thinking about it. I willingly go to sleep. The act of going to sleep is an act of letting go. You know that moment: your head is on your pillow, you’re conscious, you’re holding on, and slowly you begin to drift off. Do you let you yourself drift off?
Those of us who struggle with insomnia: there’s lots of reasons for insomnia, some of it's caffeine, some of it's existential fear: “Can I let myself go? Where is my soul going now? Can I really allow my soul to depart? Where is it going? To that God, the personal God who is there to receive my soul! The mystery of mysteries! Every morning, God gives me my soul back. It reinforces my ability to go to sleep the next night and the night after that."
And now, the author of this song makes a jump: a jump from sleep, astonishingly, to death. It's as if he is saying: What does this do for me? This ritual I go through night after night of letting go and falling asleep. It gives me the courage to do something else, to really let go, when that is demanded of me.
When do I really let go? When I face death; when I need to give not just my soul, but my body, everything, back. It’s all just something I have for a certain amount of time - and then I need to give it back to my Creator, that mystery of mysteries! And I need to trust, trust that He will be there on the other side.
So, "b’yado afkid ruchi b’et ishan v’a’irah – In His hand I will place my soul every night when I go to sleep, and in the morning, I wake up, I am vindicated. And one day, im ruchi, along with my soul, not just it will I entrust to God, g’viyati, but along with that, my body. Adonai li, My Master, He is mine. V’lo ira, and I shall not fear.”
Parts one, two, and three:
- Part one: The God who is Kadosh, who is inconceivable, powerful, sovereign, Master of all.
- Part two: That God is my God.
- Part three: How it makes a difference to me every single day because that God, the mighty God, He is my God. That is why I can go to sleep. That is why I can trust Him.
You know, if God was just my buddy, I could trust Him, but He would have no power to help me. How could I ever go to sleep, how could I entrust something like my soul to someone with no power? He must be the Master of the universe. He must have power for me to be able to give Him my soul in sleep and in death.
But if all God was, was powerful, numinous, alone, mysterious, but I was not connected to Him, I was not close to Him, He was not my God - then I could not give my soul to Him either. It is at the juncture of one and two together that allows for three, that allows for me every day to act in faith, to give my soul to the loving God who is full of power and mystery, and ultimately to give myself back in death.
In a deep kind of way, what the singer of this song is really saying is that parts one and two are not really two parts, they are the same part. "V’hu Eli" – That God, the mystery of mysteries God, that God is my personal God. His being Kadosh. His being separate - the meaning of that is He is my source. And because He is my source, because I come from Him, then He can be, then He is, and of course He is my personal God. He is my banner. He is my refuge. He is all that, because He is my source.
How could He be otherwise? It is in that that He is separate, that His great mystery lies, and it is in that that His great closeness to me lies too. And that is why I can go to sleep, that’s why I can die.
Feeling Closer to God
So here we are now facing Rosh Hashanah, facing Yom Kippur, facing these days of awe. We will spend most of our time in synagogue, in shul. We will spend most of our time in prayer.
The Machzor forces us to confront the majesty of God. But let us not be intimidated of this majesty and relinquish the task before us. Let us understand that the majesty of God is not something that should frighten us so much as it should beckon us to draw near. The majesty of God and His nearness to us are one and the same thing. Kedusha – Holiness, is what closeness with God is made out of.
This Rosh Hashanah, this Yom Kippur, whenever you find your mind wandering, ground yourself in the notion of what that holiness really means. God is more real than the chair you are sitting on, than the floor you are standing on. God is more real than anything you know. And as your Source understands you intimately, your Source understands you, understand who you really are.
Hannah poured her soul out to God, understanding that He is the Source, understanding that there was nothing to hide, that she could bring all of her emotions, even the not pretty ones, into prayer. That is the definition of prayer.
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you are being called upon to pray. Be real, be close. The God of holiness can ask nothing more from you than that.