Holy Words

Video 8 – Understanding Prayer: Heart, Mind and Soul

In this video, Rabbi Sacks discusses how listening and the idea of holy words, places, time and people are central to Judaism.

As we approached Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2017, Rabbi Sacks created a series of ten short videos to delve into what prayer really is, and how it can change your life.

Each video includes subtitles in: English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Spanish (click on the 'Settings' icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the video-player to select your preferred language).

One of the most moving lines of the High Holy Day prayers is Shema koleinu. Hear our voice, Lord our God.

Shema is one of the key words of Judaism, perhaps the key word. It’s almost impossible to translate, because it has so many shades of meaning. It means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise, and to respond.

Judaism is supremely a religion of words. God created the natural universe by words: “And God said, Let there be … and there was.” And we create, or damage, or even destroy the social universe by words. Words are how we communicate our deepest feelings to those we love; and they are also, God forbid, how we wound those we do not love.

Judaism is a religion of holy words: Torah, which is God’s word to us, and tefillah, prayer, which is our word to God.

And behind the service of Yom Kippur lies an extraordinary historical drama. Here it is: In biblical times there were holy places. The land of Israel was holy. Holier still was Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple. And within the Temple there was a place supremely sacred, called the holy of holies.

And there was holy time. There were the festivals. Holier still was Shabbat. And holier even than that was the one day in the year known as Shabbat Shabbaton - the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement.

Thirdly there were holy people. Israel itself was called goi kadosh, a holy nation. Within it the holiest of tribes were the Leviim, the Levites. Among the Leviim, holier still, were the Kohanim, the Priests. And among priests was one holier than all others, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.

And once a year the holiest man entered holiest place on the holiest day and sought atonement for all Israel.

But then the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was reduced to ruins. There were no more sacrifices, and no more High Priests.

What remained? Just the day itself. And us, the Jewish people. And that was when our ancestors discovered that wherever we pray becomes a mikdash me’at, a minor temple. Every prayer said from the heart is like a sacrifice. And when there is no High Priest to bring our prayers to God, God listens to each of us as if we were the High Priest.

We no longer had the service of the Temple, but we still had the service of the heart, and the knowledge that God listens to every word we say if it comes from the heart. Though we lost all else, we still had the words.

Shema koleinu. God, Hear our voice. Have pity and compassion on us.

For we have nothing to give You but our prayers.

This video was kindly sponsored by Alexander Machkevitch, in memory of his parents Rachel & Anton Machkevitch.

We are grateful to our generous sponsors who helped enable us to produce this video series.