Religious Life

A Prayer for the New Year – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – September 14, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

Each year on Rosh Hashana, I turn to Beth El’s founding rabbi for a message of inspiration with which to enter the holiday.

In his book, The Jewish Way of Life, Rabbi David Aronson concludes his first section on “Man and His Maker” with an exploration of prayer. He reviews major themes of Jewish prayers and highlights a few select prayers such as the Shema and the Aleinu. There is one Rosh Hashana prayer that he highlights and to me it is unexpected. If I were to choose only one Rosh Hashana prayer to explain, I’d probably choose Avinu Malkeinu and talk about our desire for mercy during this time of judgment. Or maybe I’d focus on Untaneh Tokef in which we pray to be written in the Book of Life. Or maybe I’d look to the shofar as the ultimate (wordless) Rosh Hashana petition.

Rabbi Aronson turned his attention to a prayer in the middle of the Amidah known as Uvakhen:

Uvkhen, Adonai our God, instill Your awe in all You have made so that all You created bow in recognition and become bound together carrying out Your will wholeheartedly.

Uvkhen, bestow honor on Your people, God, hope to those who seek you, joy to Your land and gladness to Your city.

Uvkhen, the righteous will rejoice, the upright will be glad, evil will be silenced, all wickedness disappear like smoke when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth (excerpt).

Scholars say this prayer was composed in the 2-3rd century making it the earliest poetic addition to the High Holiday Amidah.

This prayer outlines stages of redemption moving from the universal to the particular. The first paragraph addresses the whole world, the second paragraph the Jewish people, and the third paragraph speaks to individuals.  But Uvkhen is not just a vision of a future time. It is a charge to the present. To realize our dream for the world, each of us must strive to live a life of righteousness.

Why did Rabbi Aronson choose this prayer of all the machzor prayers to highlight? He wrote the book in 1957 just as Jews began leaving their largely Jewish neighborhoods and more fully integrating into American life. Perhaps he saw in this turning outward an opportunity and a responsibility for Jews to use their power to be a blessing for the world: “Standing before his God on Rosh Hashana, the Jews pray for a new world- a united humanity ruled by justice.” 

This remains our prayer for the coming year.

May it be a good year of health and blessings.

Shana Tova,

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Delivered to the congregation on the first night of Rosh Hashana 5779.