"Even though teshuva (repentance) and crying out are always efficacious, on the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are especially effective and are accepted immediately. [This is] as it is stated, 'Seek G-d when He is found; call out to Him when He is near' (Isaiah 55:6).
"When is this so? In the case of an individual. But a congregation, whenever [its members] repent and cry out wholeheartedly, they are answered, as it is stated '[For who is a great nation to whom G-d is close to as the L-rd our G-d] every time we call to Him' (Deuteronomy 4:7)."
Up until now the Rambam has been discussing the meaning and process of repentance in a general sense. He now begins looking at the special relevance of the High Holidays to the teshuva process. As we shall see, not only is Yom Kippur a time in which our teshuva is sought and expected, it brings the entire process to an entirely higher level.
The Rambam mentions two situations in which teshuva is particularly effective -- during the ten day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (inclusive on both ends), and whenever a congregation (quorum of ten or more men) prays together. The former period is referred to in rabbinic writings as the Ten Days of Penitence. According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a), this is the time period Isaiah had in mind when he referred to G-d as being "found" and "close".
The second situation in which prayer is especially effective is whenever a quorum ("minyan") of ten pray together. This, according to the Talmud (there), is the intent of Deut 4:7 (quoted above), that G-d is close to us *whenever* we call out to Him. This is so, explains the Talmud, whenever ten together call out to Him. This is apparently based on the Talmud elsewhere (Brachos 6a) that states that whenever ten pray, G-d's Divine Presence is with them. (Compare also to Pirkei Avos 3:7 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-7.html) "When ten people sit and study Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them.")
Ordinarily, our prayers do not go directly to G-d. They must be "transported" via the angels (see for example Talmud Sotah 33a). Our requests must go through the formal channels -- and may well not be directed heavenward if the angels deem either us or our prayers inadequate. (The Sages often employ the metaphor that the angels "tear up" unworthy prayers before they (literally) get off the ground.) When ten pray together, however, it's an entirely differently arrangement. G-d is right there. Our prayers need not pass through the ordinary bureaucratic channels; G-d lovingly receives them directly. There are no constraints. He is entirely at will to accept our prayers against all ordinary considerations of proper discretion if we so much as utter them sincerely.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (http://rabbizweig.com & http://www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) drew up a fascinating distinction between the two cases the Rambam mentions -- the Ten Days of Penitence vs. a quorum of ten. He based it upon several discrepancies in the Rambam's wording in the text.
Regarding the Ten Days, the Rambam wrote that a person's prayers are "accepted immediately." Regarding a quorum, the Rambam stated that whenever the congregation cries out wholeheartedly, they are answered. Looking closely, there are three minor differences in his wording:
(a) On the Ten Days a person's prayers are "accepted" ("miskabel"), whereas a quorum is "answered" ("ne'enim").
(b) On the Ten Days prayers are accepted "immediately" ("miyad"). The Rambam did not state this regarding a quorum.
(c) The Rambam made the acceptance of the quorum's prayers contingent on their crying out wholeheartedly. No such precondition was stated regarding an individual on the Ten Days.
All of these inferences point to a single basic difference between the Rambam's two cases. When ten Jewish men pray together, G-d's Presence descends to listen. He is there, in the presence of the congregants, ready to receive their prayers.
The Ten Days of Penitence works differently. G-d is not there on the outside, listening attentively to our words. He is within. During the Ten Days, we become attuned to that little piece of godliness within ourselves. Our souls become more strongly aware that they stem directly from G-d, that by their very nature they are holy and connected to the Divine. As is often stated in Kabbalistic works, "One who blows, from within Himself blows" (meaning, when G-d breathed man's soul into him (Genesis 2:7), He blew in a part of His very essence). We thus become attuned to our own inner connection to G-d and the fact that if we are only so cognizant, we by our very natures are inextricably bound with our Creator.
Prayer during the Ten Days thus has an entirely higher dimension. We do not have to seek out G-d on the outside -- not in heaven nor even dwelling in the presence of a quorum. We need only get in touch with our own inner selves: speak to ourselves and in so doing communicate with our G-d.
Based on this, the seemingly trivial discrepancies in the Rambam's language come into clear and awe-inspiring focus. A quorum, stated the Rambam, is "answered" when they pray. They are praying to a G-d without. A request must be presented to Him and He will (hopefully) reciprocate -- provided, as the Rambam added, they pray wholeheartedly and their words merit acceptance.
An individual during the Ten Days by contrast, does not have to be "answered". He is not praying to a G-d without but One within. His prayers are simply "accepted" -- received the moment they are uttered -- "immediately". There is no lag time. He is not praying to a G-d on the outside who must subsequently send him an answer. His prayers have an immediate effect -- instantaneously bringing him closer to his Creator.
Finally, on the Ten Days the Rambam did not state that the person must pray wholeheartedly. Of course the more sincere the better, but again, he is not praying to a G-d without who may or may not accept his prayers. He is getting in touch with a G-d within his very soul. And any degree to which he communicates will cause some heavenly reaction. The closer he moves to G-d, the more G-d will be there for him.
(By the way, some explain the concept of women's prayer along the same lines. Women who are first introduced to traditional Judaism are often bothered that they appear relegated to a secondary status in the synagogue. They feel they are at best passive observers who may not lead the services and often can hardly see what's going on in the "main" part of the synagogue.
I realize it sounds a tad patronizing to write that women are not a part of the quorum because they're so great they don't need it. But that really is the idea -- and it's right along the lines we wrote above. Men, who by their nature relate to the public side of the world, relate more to a G-d without. They pray to a G-d outside of themselves. And that only becomes real for them in a large gathering, with the symbols and uniform of public worship and where the Divine Presence descends. Women, more attuned to the inner workings of the world, are much more attuned to the G-d within. They turn inwards rather than out to merit rapport with G-d. And if anything, a large noisy crowd distracts from the holy communion they are capable of in private.
Anyway, please no irate responses about this. Some people are always itching for a fight on such things... Just thought I would touch on this important topic in passing. If someone is still dissatisfied and wants a longer discourse, I'm just there are much better resources to turn to.)
To close, I feel there are two powerful lessons this week. The first one which I want to be sure my readers do not miss is the tremendous and breathtaking precision with which our Rabbis write -- the Rambam foremost among them. What appears the most inconsequential choice of wording on his part (more often than not lost in the translation) may well convey worlds of meaning. The closer we examine the words of our Sages the more profound their messages become.
The second great lesson is the message itself we derived from the Rambam -- the special connection we enjoy with G-d during the High Holidays -- and really the entire year if we are only so perceptive . He is there with us all along. We stemmed from Him originally and have never truly lost that connection. If we are only so cognizant as to recognize this we will see ourselves in an entirely different light, standing speechless at the holiness within our very selves.