In this strangest of Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”), a season of caution and isolation that would have been a dystopian fantasy less than a year ago, my mind turns over and over certain snippets of the High Holy Days liturgy that I have enjoyed sharing with congregations large and small over many years.
When, at Ne’ilah next week, we read ‘p’taḥ lanu sha‘ar…’— ‘Open a gate for us at this time of closing the gate…’—I will be thinking about the gates of our synagogues and other community gathering places. May they soon be open wide once more!
Lately I have found myself humming a melody for Areshet Sefateinu, the brief meditation that closes out the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot sections of the ‘Amida at Musaf on these two days of Rosh Hashana: ‘May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who understands, lends an ear, looks, and listens to the sound of our shofar blast…’.
Wait! Isn’t that order quite a jumble? Two verbs for listening, and not together in the list? And what is there to see in a shofar blast, anyway? But most puzzling is that in this list, ‘understands’ (meivin) comes before listening and looking. Shouldn’t understanding be the result of taking in information by watching and listening?
Not really. When we encounter someone—a relative, a friend, or even someone we barely know or are just meeting—we need first to understand who they are before we can listen and observe properly. We need to know something about a person’s life, about his dreams, about her fears, about the person’s family and work and other life circumstances before we can know what to listen for, before we can interpret the meaning of what we see and hear.
That is the uniqueness of the God to whom we address our Rosh Hashana prayers: this God knows us. God knows us as the descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (but just in case, we remind God of that not infrequently). God knows us as the flawed but striving individuals we are. We subtly remind God to put our pleas into the perspective of our lives when we place meivin before those other verbs.
And we can learn to emulate God in that practice. We can recall that the demanding child or parent has a life experience (or, with the child, a lack thereof) that he or she brings to this moment. We know that the annoying neighbor or faltering employee has a lot more going on, or has been through a lot more, than whatever issue is on the table right now. We can even strive to see ourselves as we really are before we make our own demands of the world and of ourselves, entering this new year.
May we all understand, lend an ear, look, and listen to the sounds of the shofar, and may our striving to really see and hear be successful.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is Av Bet Din of the Israeli Masorti rabbinate’s bet din. He lives in Jerusalem