I had the privilege of being at a very good synagogue this Rosh Hashana. In the Musaf liturgy, which is added to the morning service corresponding to the additional sacrifices that were offered on Holy Days when the Temple stood, there is a prayer Hineni, in which the Cantor prays before the ark confessing his/her unworthiness. It is a pleading for help that he/she might intercede for the people who have sent him/her to plead with God on their behalf. The prayer is magnificent–utterly magnificent. It begins this way, in Hebrew of course, chanted by the cantor who stands pleading before the Holy Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, symbolizing the presence of the covenant making God of Israel.
Here I stand, impoverished of deeds, trembling and frightened with the dread of He Who is enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
I have come to stand and supplicate before You for Your people Israel, who have sent me although I am unworthy and unqualified to do so.
Therefore, I beg of you, O God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, HaShem, HaShem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, God of Israel, Frightening and Awesome One, grant success to the way upon which I travel, standing to plead for mercy upon myself and upon those who sent me. Please do not hold them to blame for my sins and do not find them guilty of my iniquities, for I am a careless and willful sinner. Let them not feel humiliated by my willful sins. Let them not be ashamed of me and let me not be ashamed of them.
What follows this is another prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which penetratingly reminds us that God is our Judge. In part the text reads thus:
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
I was profoundly struck this year by the holiness of the service. The Jewish liturgy, in prayers like these, made palpable that we were standing in the presence of the Judge of All, before whom all will one day stand in the Final Judgment. When these prayers are done by a truly called, committed, and skilled Hazzan/Cantor, the sense of deep respect for God himself, of standing in his presence fully known and rightly accused, is profound and overwhelming. It is not that one staggers under a burden of guilt–it is that one is keenly and unambiguously aware of his/her need for mercy.
What holiness! As I listened to the Cantor praying so powerfully, as I followed the liturgy, I did not want the moment to end for I felt myself face to face with the mystery and profound weight of judgment and of mercy, not as ideas, but as ultimate realities.
Some will say “Where was Yeshua in all this?” I had a somewhat stunning insight about that too, at least it was stunning for me. The Cantor, although sinful, stands before the Ark pleading before God for mercy for the people as the High Priest prayed for the people in the days of the Temple. And in pleading before the throne of heaven for mercy for God’s people, the Cantor is in some small but real measure participating in the role of the Messiah, our Great High Priest, who stands in heaven interceding for us on the merits of His atoning death and resurrection. Most of our Jewish people do not yet know that Yeshua is our Great High Priest . . . but we know.
In those moments in the synagogue I was more aware then ever of the holiness of God, of our accountability to Him, of how fully we stand indicted in His Presence, and of our primal need for mercy. I was also more appreciative than ever of the atoning sacrifice of our Messiah, who as our Great High Priest, intercedes for us, and pleads for mercy for us on the merit of His shed blood.
In a very real and deep sense, the Messiah is our Chazzan, our Cantor, who also leads us in the praise of God, which is more than anything else, the core of Jewish liturgy. He is, like the Chazzan/the Cantor in the Hineni prayer, a representative of the congregation, as was the High Priest of old. This is why the Book of Hebrews says in chapter two:
11 . . . he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers (and sisters), 12 saying,“I will tell of your name to my brothers (and sisters); in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
Yeshua as our Great High Priest is the Representative of the congregation, made like his brethren in every respect, pleading before the throne of God for mercy on behalf of those very much in need of that mercy, and he is our Chazzan, revealing to us the Name–the nature–of God, and leading the congregation in His praise.
Let us never forget who it is before whom we stand, and who it is that pleads for mercy on our behalf at so great a price.