Delivered by Rav Yisrael Bitan Shelit"a
The period of the Three Weeks (from Shiba Assar Be’Tammuz through Tisha B’Ab) is a period of special holiness. The Maharsham (Rav Shalom Mordechai Schwadron of Berezhany, 1835-1911) writes that the sanctity of these weeks resembles the sanctity of three-week period from Rosh Hashanah through Simhat Torah. He adds that the prayers recited during this period are more powerful and more readily accepted by Hashem than our prayers throughout the rest of the year. This is particularly so, the Maharsham teaches, of the prayers recited on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Ab. The Maharsham brings this in the name of Rav Uri of Strelisk ("the Saraf"). Especially during this period, therefore, it is imperative to pay greater attention to our prayers and ensure that they are recited properly.
Some sections of the prayer service – such as the Amida – generally receive proper attention, and are approached with seriousness and focus. Others, however, seem to have fallen into neglect – particularly the Alenu prayer, which is recited at the very end of the service. This prayer for many has become a "Tefilat Ha’derech" – a prayer recited on the move, as they leave the synagogue. And some people don’t even stay for Alenu at all. It is jokingly said that the morning Shaharit service begins with the arrival of Pharaoh – "Ki Ba Sus Pharaoh" (a verse recited at the very end of the Pesukeh De’zimrah section), and concludes with the arrival of our redemption – "U’ba Le’siyon Go’el" (a prayer recited towards the end of the service, but before the concluding prayers). Although we give Alenu a great deal of attention and prominence on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it is recited during Musaf, we tend to recite it quickly and mindlessly the rest of the year, when it is recited at the very end of the prayer service.
This neglect of Alenu is most unfortunate, because Alenu is an especially powerful and significant prayer. Rav Hai Gaon (d. 1038), in a responsum cited by the Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) in Birkeh Yosef, wrote that Alenu is "greater than all praises in the world." And the Roke’ah (Rav Elazar of Worms, Germany, d. 1238) described Alenu as "the Shir Hashirim of all the praises," comparing it to Shir Hashirim, which the Sages say is "Kodesh Kodashim" – "the holiest of the holies." Likewise, the Mishna Berura (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) writes (citing from the Mateh Moshe) that the Alenu prayer "opens all the gates of prayers," and when we recite this prayer, Hashem exclaims, "See My children who give Me praise!"
The unique importance of Alenu can be seen in the explanation given by the Sha’ar Ha’kavanot (a collection of teachings of the Arizal, Rav Yishak Luria of Tzefat, 1534-1572) for the structure of the prayer service. The Sha’ar Ha’kavanot writes that the prayer service consists of four sections, corresponding to the four realms of existence ("Asiya," "Yesira," "Beri’a," "Asilut"). These four sections are: the introductory prayers before Baruch She’amar; Pesukeh De’zimra; Shema and its blessings; and the Amida. The Amida prayer represents the realm of "Asilut," the highest domain. Through the recitation of these prayers, we "build" the four realms. The Kaddish recitations in between the sections of the prayer service signify the transition from one realm to the next. Our prayers also help build the "Or Penimi" – the "inner light," as well as the "Or Ha’makif" – the "surrounding light." However, this entire process is threatened by the "Mekatregim," the "prosecutors," the harmful angels and spirits which seek to sabotage our prayers. This is why we recite the Pesukei De’zimra section before we pray the Amida. The word "Zimra" is derived from the root "Z.M.R.," which means "prune," removing unwanted branches. Our recitation of Pesukeh De’zimra has the effect of "pruning," eliminating the harmful spirits so they cannot tamper with our prayers. However, while this suffices to ensure the successful creation of our "Or Penimi," it does not suffice to ensure the creation of the "Or Ha’makif." For this we require the recitation of Alenu. We build the "Or Ha’makif" when we recite in Alenu, "She’hem Mishtahavim La’hebel Va’rik… Va’anahnu Kor’im U’mishtahavim…" ("For they bow to nonsense and nothingness…whereas we kneel and bow…"). It is then that we produce the "Or Ha’makif," thereby building all four worlds. This is why it is so vitally important to recite Alenu properly – because it is the secret to the success of all our prayers.
The Sages teach that Moshe recited 515 prayers begging Hashem to allow him to enter the Land of Israel. This is why the Torah describes him praying with the word "Va’et’hanan," which has the Gematria (numerical value) of 515. G-d responded by telling Moshe to stop praying – and the Rabbis explain that had Moshe recited one more prayer, G-d would have had to relent. The holy books teach that this refers to the first part of Kaddish – "Yitgadal Ve’yitkadash Shemeh Rabba." In Kaddish, we do not make any requests for ourselves; we pray solely for G-d Himself, that His Name should be exalted and glorified. When we recite this kind of prayer, praying solely for Hashem, and not for ourselves, it makes all our prayers exceptionally powerful. And therefore, if Moshe had recited Kaddish, his prayers to enter Eretz Yisrael would have been accepted.
The same is true of Alenu. We do not make any requests in Alenu; we recite this prayer solely for Hashem, and not at all for ourselves.
The first section of Alenu begins with the letter "Ayin" ("Alenu"); the second section begins with "Shin" ("She’lo Asanu"); the third begins with "Vav" ("Va’anahnu Kor’im"); and the fourth begins with the letter "Heh" ("Hu Elokenu"). These four letters spell "Hoshea" – the original name of Yehoshua, who composed the Alenu prayer.
Let us commit ourselves to pay greater attention to Alenu, reciting it with greater focus and concentration, so that all our prayers will be lovingly accepted.