What is the “service of the heart”? This is prayer
The haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for the first day of Rosh HaShanah tells the story of Chanah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.
The “Prayer of Chanah,” as this reading is called, is one of the fundamental biblical sources for the concept of prayer, and many of the laws governing prayer are derived from it.
Chanah, the childless wife of Elkanah, came to Shiloh, where the Sanctuary stood before King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, to pray for a child:
She prayed to G-d, weeping profusely. And she vowed a vow, and said: “O L-rd of Hosts… If You will give Your maidservant a child, I shall dedicate him to G-d all the days of his life…” 1
Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh, watched as she
prayed profusely before G-d… Only her lips moved; her voice was not heard.
Eli thought her a drunkard. And he said to her: “How long shall you be drunken?! Put away your wine!” Chanah replied: “No, my lord… I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink. I have poured out my soul before the face of G-d…” 2
Eli accepted her answer and blessed her that G-d should grant her request. That year, Chanah gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel (“asked from G-d”). After weaning him, she fulfilled her vow to dedicate him to the service of G-d by bringing him to Shiloh, where he was raised by Eli and the priests. Samuel grew up to become one of the greatest prophets of Israel.
The “Prayer of Chanah,” as this reading is called, is one of the fundamental biblical sources for the concept of prayer, and many of the laws governing prayer are derived from it. Indeed, the dialogue between Eli and Chanah touches on the very essence of prayer in general, and of prayer on Rosh HaShanah in particular.
The concept of praying to G-d, as it is presented in the Torah and expounded upon in the writings of our sages, seems to contain an inherent inconsistency.
On the one hand, prayer is described as the soul’s communion with its Creator, its island of heaven in an otherwise earth-bound day.
“The pious would meditate for an hour,” say our sages, “and only then would they pray.” 3 “They would seclude themselves and focus their minds until they had totally divested themselves of the physical and had reached a supremacy of the spirit of reason, so that they attained a state close to that of prophecy.” 4 They “bound their souls to the Master Of All, in an overpowering state of awe and love and true attachment.” 5
Indeed, the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefillah, means “attachment”; prayer being the endeavor to rise above one’s pedestrian concerns and connect to one’s source in G-d.
Yet the essence of prayer is our beseeching the Almighty to provide us with our everyday, material needs. This is the foundation upon which its entire spiritual edifice rests. Maimonides defines the precept of prayer thus:
…That every day a person should pray and beseech, speaking the praises of G-d and then asking for the needs which he requires with entreaty and supplication; after which he offers praise and thanks to G-d for the good that He has bestowed upon him… 6
The centrality of “asking for one’s needs” to prayer is also emphasized in the manner by which Maimonides traces the biblical origins of this mitzvah. “It is a positive commandment,” he writes, “to pray each day, as it is written: ‘And you shall serve the L-rd your G-d.’ We have it by tradition that this ‘service’ is prayer, as it is written: ‘…to serve Him with all your heart’; said our sages: ‘What is the service of the heart? This is prayer.’” 7
The obvious question that arises is: Why does Maimonides quote the first verse (“And you shall serve the L-rd your G-d”—Exodus 23:25) if, in any case, it is necessary to quote the second verse (“To serve Him with all your heart”—Deuteronomy 11:13) to establish that the “service” of which the Torah speaks is the service of prayer? Why not simply attribute the source of prayer to the second verse, which contains both the imperative to serve G-d as well as the allusion to the nature of this service?
The answer is to be found in the second half of the verse from Exodus. The full verse reads: “And you shall serve the L-rd your G-d, and He will bless your bread and your water.” Maimonides wishes to stress that this verse, not the one that speaks of serving G-d “with all your heart,” is the primary source for the concept of prayer. For prayer cannot be defined only as an outpouring of the heart of man in his quest to cleave to his Creator. It is this, too, but first and foremost it is man turning to G-d for his daily bread and water. In the words of another great Halachist, “The root of this mitzvah… is that [man] request from G-d, in whose hands lie power and providership, all his needs.” 8
But are not these two aspects of prayer incompatible, even contradictory? Would one who has “totally divested himself of the physical” sincerely “ask for the needs which he requires with entreaty and supplication”? Would one who has “attained a state close to that of prophecy” and “of awe and love and true attachment” to G-d, have bread and water on his mind?
The paradox of prayer is magnified a thousandfold when it comes to the prayers of Rosh HaShanah. On Rosh HaShanah, we are not only standing before G-d; we are crowning Him king, pledging to Him the total abnegation of our own self and its desires to His will. What place is there on this day for the very notion of personal need? And yet, a glance at the Rosh HaShanah prayerbook shows that it abounds with requests for life, health and sustenance for the coming year.
A Home on Earth
G-d created the world, say our sages, because “He desired a dwelling in the lower realms.” 9
The “lower realms” is our physical world, lowly because of its spiritual distance from its source, its illusion of self-sufficiency, its almost total blackout of anything transcendent and divine. But it is here that G-d wished to make His home, desiring that this “lower realm” be made to house and express His truth.
Seen in this light, our needs are not personal needs, and our requirements are not selfish requirements.
Thus the Torah describes our mission in life as comprised primarily of physical actions involving physical objects: to bind the tefillin—leather boxes containing parchment scrolls—on one’s arm and head; to eat matzah on Passover; to sound a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShanah; to observe the laws that govern our business dealings, family life, diet and dress. Indeed, virtually every material resource on earth and every organ and limb of the human body has its prescribed mitzvah—G-d’s way of establishing how it can be made to be the instrument of His will.
Seen in this light, our needs are not personal needs, and our requirements are not selfish requirements. Yes, we are requesting food, health and wealth; but we are requesting them as a servant asking his master for the means to better serve him. We ask for money to fulfill the mitzvah of charity; for strength to build a sukkah; for food to keep body and soul together so that our physical lives may serve as a “dwelling in the lower realms” that houses G-d’s presence in our world.
And Rosh HaShanah—the day in which we crown G-d our king—is the most opportune time to approach Him with our material needs and wants. Indeed, one who considers it “unbecoming” to entreat G-d for his physical needs on Rosh HaShanah rejects a most fundamental aspect of the divine sovereignty. Crowning G-d king means accepting Him as sovereign in all areas of our lives, including—and primarily—our most mundane needs and requirements. It means acknowledging our utter dependence upon Him not only for our spiritual nurture, but for the piece of bread that sustains our physical existence. It means dedicating ourselves not only to our soul’s quest for connection with Him, but also—and primarily—to fulfilling His desire for a home on physical earth.
An Accusation of Drunkenness
Therein lies the deeper significance of Chanah’s prayer and the exchange between Eli the High Priest and Chanah, the woman who teaches us how to pray on Rosh HaShanah—and on every day of the year.
Eli’s accusation to Chanah of “drunkenness” can also be understood as a critique of what he saw as excessive indulgence in the wants and desires of the material self. 10 You are standing in the holiest place on earth—Eli was implying—the place where the divine presence has chosen to dwell. Is this the place to ask for your personal needs? And if you must ask for them, is this the place to “pray profusely,” with such tenacity and passion?
You misunderstand me, replied Chanah. “I have poured out my soul before the face of G-d.” I am not merely asking for a son; I am asking for a son so that I might “dedicate him to G-d all the days of his life.”
Our sages tell us that Samuel was conceived on Rosh HaShanah. 11 G-d’s fulfillment of Chanah’s prayer on this day encourages us to indeed avail ourselves of the awesome moment of G-d’s coronation to approach Him with requests for our everyday needs. For on this day, our “personal” needs and our desire to serve our King are one and the same.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Rosh HaShanah 5736 (1976) and on numerous other occasions. 12
This article is an excerpt from Inside Time, a groundbreaking three-volume book set about the meaning and messages of the Hebrew calendar.