Even after a few years through the yearly cycle of liturgy, “traditional” prayer services are still very new to me. Even so, I’ve already found a few of my favorite moments – things I look forward to hearing and savor as they pass.
If you are in the right state of mind, the Days of Awe present a lot of those moments. For me, one is the prayer “Hineini” (“Here I Stand”), or “The Chazzan’s Prayer”. You can click here for the traditional text, or here for a more poetic interpretation. But it reads, in part:
“Hineini – Here I stand, impoverished of deeds, trembling and frightened with the dread [...].
I have come to stand and supplicate before You for Your people Israel, who have sent me although I am unworthy and unqualified to do so.
Therefore, I beg of you, [...] Please do not hold them to blame for my sins and do not find them guilty of my iniquities, for I am a careless and willful sinner. Let them not feel humiliated by my willful sins. Let them not be ashamed of me and let me not be ashamed of them. Accept my prayer like the prayers of an experienced elder whose lifetime has been well spent, whose beard is fully grown, whose voice is sweet, and who is friendly with other people. ”
I find myself deeply moved by the private, personal and human tone of this prayer. Many prayers – throughout the year as well as on the High Holidays – are written as communal “we ask you… please help us…hear our prayer” types of supplications. But here is a prayer written for the solo voice.
It’s just my interpretation, not anything I’ve learned formally, but I truly believe this is the voice of the Kohain Gadol as he stood in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. As he stood in the small boxy room, a nation’s hope riding on his shoulders and a rope around his leg to drag him out if he died for some undetected sin, in that moment what could anyone say except “You and I both know I’m not up to this job. But those people out there, they are good and holy people. Please don’t let me let them down.”
Weirdly, this reminded me of one of my favorite sequences from T.H. White’s story “The Ill-Made Knight“. In it, Lancelot is called upon to heal a fellow knight. The problem is that, because of his failings, he no longer believes he can perform such a feat:
“Miracles, which you wanted to do so long ago, can only be done by the pure in heart. The people outside are waiting for you to do this miracle because you have traded on their belief that your heart was pure – and now, with treachery and adultery and murder wringing the heart like a cloth, you are to go out into the sunlight for the test of honour.
Lancelot stood [waiting his turn], as white as a sheet [...] He walked down the curious ranks [of knights], ugly as ever, self-conscious, ashamed, a veteran going to be broken.
“Oh, Sir Urre,” he said, “if only I could help you, how willingly I would. But you don’t understand. you don’t understand.”
“For God’s sake,” said Sir Urre.
Lancelot looked into the East, where he thought God lived, and said something in his mind. “I don’t want glory, but please can you save our honesty? And if you will heal this knight for the knight’s sake, please do.”
[a bit later...]
The cheers which now began, round after round, were like drumfire or thunder, rolling round the turrets of Carlisle. All the field, and all the people in the field and all the towers of the castle seemed to be jumping up and down like the surface of a lake under rain.
In the middle, quite forgotten, Lancelot was kneeling by himself. This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.”
The days ahead have the potential to transform. There is an opportunity to encounter the Divine and leave our old selves behind us. During the process, keep in mind that the amazing thing might not be that God forgives us, or grants us another year. Maybe the most amazing thing is that we will have the chance to stand before God at all.