Bread bowl
Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The Great Aleinu

Some years ago I wandered into Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Israel. The rabbi there, a new guy named Jeff, did something startling near the end of the service: he invited us to get down on our hands and knees with him. This wasn't something I'd ever heard of before, and it startled me into paying attention. Jeff is now my rabbi, and CBI is now my shul, and the custom he introduced me to that year has become my favorite part of Rosh Hashanah services.

Rosh Hashanah festival services are substantial.*  I find it's easier to maintain focus if I'm spiritually "in-shape" from attending regular Shabbat services, but even so, by the end of the experience my spirit is usually flagging. The shofar service gets me going again, like a last lap around the track.

The shofar service has three parts, each focusing on one aspect of our experience of God: Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (Remembrance), and Shofarot (Revelation). The centerpiece of the shofar service is the blowing of the shofar, obviously, and I love that. It's an eerie sound which never fails to wake me up (spiritually, though I expect it would serve as a fine physical alarm clock, too). But aside from hearing the shofar, my favorite moment of the day comes at the beginning of the Malchuyot section: the prostration during the Great Aleinu.

The Aleinu** is the closing prayer of every Jewish worship experience, which begins, "It is incumbent upon us to praise the God of all..." The prayer expresses fervent hopes for a time when the power of God's beauty will sweep away idolatry, so that the truth of God's presence will repair the world. Powerful stuff. (Liturgical scholars seem to agree that the prayer's origins are in the Rosh Hashanah service, and that it moved from here to the regular weekday liturgy.) Fairly early in the prayer, we sing, "We bow low and prostrate ourselves in thanks before the source of all sources, the Holy One, blessed is God." Most of the year, when we chant those words, we bend our knees and dip our heads, a kind of symbolic bowing. Not so on Rosh Hashanah: today we actually prostrate ourselves. Knees first; then hands; then forehead.

I like to approach religion intellectually. I like my brain, and I trust my brain, and I know how to use my brain. But the first time I tried prostrating myself during the Great Aleinu, the experience went right past my brain and hit me somewhere far more profound.

This summer I learned a little drash on the word melech (King): it can be read as an acronym for mochin (mind), lev (heart) and kishkes (guts). In other words, God's sovereignty makes itself felt through our minds, our hearts, and our bodies. My first prostration was the first time I consciously prayed with my body, and it was overwhelming. I barely registered the rest of the prayer; some part of me was still on the ground long after we had risen and moved on.

It's especially powerful on the first day of Rosh Hashanah because it comes on the heels of the Torah reading in which Sarah, having birthed Isaac, becomes jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and casts them out. God hears Ishmael's cries in the wilderness, and saves him, and promises to make a nation of him, just like Isaac. When I first pressed my forehead to the carpet during the Great Aleinu, what passed through my body was awareness of our Muslim cousins, who (tradition holds) are descended from Ishmael as we are descended from Isaac. It seems significant to me that on the day when we read the story of Ishmael being cast out and then redeemed -- the story that epitomizes the beginning of the conflict we've all come to know so well -- we prostrate ourselves in prayer, as Muslims do every day. As if the tradition wants to remind us that despite the acrimony of our peoples' beginnings, at root we worship the same God, even in some of the same ways.

One of the purposes of prayer, to my mind, is enabling us to climb the ladder between ourselves and our Source: to move through the worlds of action, emotion, and thought and into the world of essence. Not all prayer works that way (and prayer has other purposes, too), but the davvening that reaches me the most is davvening which moves me out of my limited sense of self and into connection with something greater. Prostration during the Great Aleinu moves me that way. It's a physical experience that I can carry with me. If I'm lucky, it will enrich all the little aleinus I'll pray in the year to come.


 * First come the morning blessings, then p'sukey d'zimrah (psalms and poems), then the Shema and her blessings, then the Amidah (central standing prayer), then the Torah service...and finally the shofar service. And that's in a Reform shul; other denominations put the shofar service during the Musaf, or "additional," service. Confused yet? Here's a great overview.


 ** Many Reform congregations find the Aleinu problematic because of the line thanking God for not making us like other nations. CBI has modified one word in the prayer: לא (lo, meaning "no" or "not") has become לו (lo, meaning "for him"). So instead of singing "Who has made us unlike the other nations," we sing "Who has made us for Him(self) like the other nations." It's a nifty hack, which preserves the sound and melody of the original without implying that we're superior to other peoples.