There are a number of prayers in the High Holiday liturgy that evoke the core purposes of this season. One of these is the Aleinu HaGadol (“The Great Aleinu”).
To better understand the meaning of this prayer it is important to recognize a significant difference between the English word “prayer” and the Hebrew word “t’filah” (often translated as “prayer”).
While “prayer” includes the expression of gratitude and praise, the petition of God for help, strength, courage, restored health, sustenance, and peace of mind, and communion with God, t’filah, though encompassing praise and petition as well, is associated with the Hebrew word nafal (The infinitive of nafal is Lipol: lamed-yod-peh-lamed – from the Hebrew root: nun-peh-lamed; the nun is silent in t’filah) – meaning “to fall.” (Note: I learned this interpretation years ago, but I do not recall who taught it to me)
Unlike the English word “prayer,” the Hebrew word t’filah entails falling before God.
This idea of t’filah is captured in an early interaction between Avram and God.
When God gave Avram his new name, Avraham, and explained that Abraham’s new status would be as the patriarch of Israel in return for which God promised Abraham the blessing that he would become av hamon goyim – “Father of a multitude of nations,” the Torah says that in response Vayipol Avram al panav – “And Abram fell (vayipol) on his face” (Genesis 17:3-5).
Even as Avram assumed his new spiritual status and responsibility, he recognized the enormity of the task of leading his people, and he acknowledged his need for God’s help. Hence, Vayipol Avram al panav.
This phrase reasonably can be read in one of two ways: The most common is “Abram fell on his own face,” expressing through prostration the physical attitude of supplication and humility before God.
The second way it can be read is this – “Avram fell on God’s face.”
What might it mean for Avram to fall upon God’s face?
In addition to assuming the physical attitude of supplication and humility in prostration, Avram may well have yearned to become One with God, thus falling upon God’s “Face.” Chassidism teaches that this is one goal of all t’filah. It fulfills the yearning of the mystic to become one-achdut with God.
Twice each year the Jewish people prostates before God. The first is on Rosh Hashanah and the second is on Yom Kippur. Both are during the Aleinu Hagadol, the Great Aleinu.
Muslims too assume through prostration this attitude of submission to Allah five times daily. I am told that in Los Angeles, Catholic Priests of the Archdiocese prostrate together before the altar on Good Friday in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, otherwise known as the Catholic Downtown Cathedral.
Many Jews in my congregation take this opportunity to assume the most humble attitude before the open ark on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when, led by the Rabbis, we chant the Aleinu Hagadol in a prone position. It is a most powerful and emotionally charged moment.
This year I invite those of you who have not fallen before the ark upon your faces and upon God’s face to do so.
G’mar chatimah tovah – may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.