Our tradition teaches that the founder of the Jewish people, Abraham, is the one who introduced the notion of daily prayer to the world. “And Abraham awoke in the morning to the place, el hamakom, where he had stood, asher amad sham, before G-d” (Breisheet 19:27). Though prayer is not actually mentioned in the above verse, our sages interpreted the word amad, where he stood, as a reference to prayer, stating that “there is no standing other than prayer”.
"At four times the world is judged: On Pesach for produce; on Shavuot for the fruit of the tree; on Rosh Hashanah, all who come into the world pass before Him like the children of Maron, as it says, 'He creates the hearts of them all, and discerns all of their deeds' (Tehillim 33:15); and on the holiday [Sukkot], we are judged for on water" (Rosh Hashanah 16a).
Two of our most fundamental mitzvoth are those of Tefillah, prayer and Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. Yet there has long been a tension regarding which is of primary importance. The view that "if only one would pray the entire day" (Brachot 21a) cannot be easily reconciled with G-d's words to Joshua that, "The book of law shall not depart from your mouth and you shall meditate in its words day and night" (Joshua 1:8).
The Talmud spends a good deal of time discussing the proper frame of mind for prayer. In a rather obvious remark (yet, much easier said than done), the Gemarah notes that “One must aim their thoughts towards heaven” (Brachot 31a). Proof for this is provided by the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, as follows: “Rav Yehuda says this was the custom of Rabbi Akiva, when he would pray between him and himself, one would leave him in this corner and find him in a different corner”. Yet, the Gemarah seems to note that such heavenly focus is only appropriate if one is davening privately.
The Gemara, in discussing the propriety of making an “early Shabbat”, records that Rav Yirmiya davened just behind his teacher, Rav, on Friday afternoons while Rav was reciting the prayers for Shabbat. The Gemara questions how he could do so, as it was Rav himself, the founder of the great academy in Sura, who taught that it is inappropriate to daven next to or behind one’s teacher.
Education, Mark Twain once quipped, consists mainly in what we have unlearned. For a great many Jews today, shul is a kind of ponderous opera, taking place in a foreign tongue, that they desperately wish to unlearn. Depending on the opera house in question, the always well-dressed patrons sit in stony uncomprehending silence or continuously interrupt the performance with a rowdy mirth that attests to the inconvenience of self-restraint. One who wishes to cling to any remnants of the sacred must, like a well-trained spy, commit to forgetting all he has seen.
The High Holiday period is one (we hope!) filled with introspection, reflection and a commitment to try to become a better person. Our religious antennae are at their highest point as we spend the day in prayer and fasting. For many, it is the only time of the year that any significant amount of time is spent in communal prayer. It is a day in which we focus on the fragility of life, remembering those who are no longer and pleading that we be spared from their fate.