Elul / Rosh Hashanah
High noon on Rosh Hashanah. The people tremble in fear and
trepidation. What will the future bode? Will it be life or death? Health or
sickness? Riches or poverty? All morning, songs and prayers rocked
the synagogue walls, and now, the Mussaf prayer, the highlight of the
day, begins. Suddenly, the sounds are muted, and the prayers become
ethereal murmurs fainter than the softest whisper. Why is this so? Why
don’t we give free rein to our emotions and shout our prayers with all
The answer lies in the Haftorah reading of Rosh Hashanah. It tells
the story of Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah. She makes a
pilgrimage to the Tabernacle in Shiloh and prays her heart out for a
child, but not in the customary manner. Her prayers are not
demonstrative nor vocal. Instead, she stands in a corner with her eyes
squinted shut and her lips moving soundlessly. Observing her strange
behavior, the High Priest assumes she is drunk and asks her to leave.
“No, my lord,” she protests. “I am a woman distraught; no wine or
spirits have I drunk. I was pouring out my heart before Hashem.”
“Go then in peace,” says the High Priest. “The Lord of Israel will
surely grant your wish.”
Surely not everyone who prayed in the Tabernacle had his wish
granted. Yet something about Hannah’s reply convinced the High Priest
that her prayer had been favorably received before the Heavenly
Throne. What convinced him of this?
The commentators explain that the ultimate prayer emanates from
a yearning so deep that it is beyond articulation. Words, no matter how
eloquent, are boundaries to the aspirations of the soul. But the yearning
in Hannah’s soul for connection with the Almighty was so profound that
it transcended all verbal boundaries, so profound that she found it
impossible to pray aloud as other people did. Instead, the whispered
words of her silent prayer just opened the floodgates of her heart and
allowed her torrential feelings to flow upward to Heaven. Such prayers,
the High Priest was convinced, would surely be answered, and indeed,
it has become customary to pray silently in an attempt to achieve
Hannah’s exalted state of prayer.
On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar is the conduit through
which the deepest feelings of our hearts flow upward to Heaven. On this
awesome day, we do not constrain our prayers in boundaries of specific
personal requests. Instead, we offer up our intense yearning for
connection with the Almighty, for if we can truly connect with Him, all our
needs will be abundantly fulfilled.
A great sage was mulling over the question of who would sound the
shofar in the synagogue. A number of his disciples asked to be
considered for this great honor.
“This is not simply an honorary task,” said the sage. “I need
someone who really knows how to sound the shofar.” He pointed to one
of his disciples. “How about you? What would you think as you sound
“I would think about the deep mystical significance of each of the
“Not good enough,” said the sage and shook his head. He pointed
to another. “How about you?”
“I would concentrate on extracting pure, perfectly pitched sounds
from the shofar.”
“Not good enough,” said the sage and shook his head again. He
pointed to another. “How about you?”
“I would not think any specific thoughts. I would simply close my
eyes and let my inner feelings flow through the shofar.”
“Ah!” said the sage. “You are the one I am looking for.”
In our own lives, we all prepare a long list of personal needs and
requests which we will intend to present to Hashem on Rosh Hashanah.
But if we would really be in touch with our innermost feelings, we would
realize that all our desires and aspirations derive from the insatiable
yearning of our souls for connection with the Creator. We would
discover that if we focused on achieving that divine connection we
would experience joy and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.