The scene: A hushed silence fills the shul. Everyone is standing and the children gather around the תוקע, eyes open wide with anticipation and excitement. The ברכות are uttered with intense כוונה, the שופר is raised, and then - suddenly, there comes the unwelcome cry of an infant from somewhere in the room. All eyes turn glaringly at the offending infant and parent, waiting impatiently for them to exit the room so the sound of the שופר can pierce the heavens.
I've always been uncomfortable with that glaring look. Not because the child was so innocent, not out of sympathy for the embarrassed parent and not even because the cry of the child emanated from a source so deep and pure that it far overshadows the visceral wail of the שופר - but because the infant's weeping touches one of the fundamental themes of ראש השנה.
Starting with ראש השנה and continuing through יום הכיפורים our תפילות are suffused with a dual theme, perhaps best represented by the אבינו מלכנו. On the one hand we feel completely overwhelmed by God's might and royalty, so awesome is He that in His role as מלך we cannot even dream of drawing close and cleaving to Him. On the other hand, ה' is also portrayed as a loving and doting father in whose טלית we can wrap ourselves and in whose arms we can be wrapped, feeling safe and secure.
This dual theme of ה' as King and as Father weaves its way throughout the תפילות of the ימים נוראים and poses no difficulty for ה', as the oneness of God can unite seemingly contradictory qualities reflected through the way He relates to Mankind. For us, however, the story is quite different. We may be able to relate to ה' as either אבינו or מלכנו, but not as both simultaneously - and so we must constantly bounce back and forth between one and the other, resulting in a schizophrenic kaleidoscope of feelings and emotions. Expressed in the language of the תפילות; objectively, ה' is אבינו מלכנו. But we mortals who can grasp only one image at a time must choose between being either בנים or עבדים - אם כבנים אם כעבדים.
While the תפילות and the מצוות היום are designed to help us comprehend the profundity of these ideas and the שליח ציבור's task is to guide us in feeling them, somehow the experience tends to drift to being cerebral, or even worse, a hollow and rote performance. Enter the piercing call of the child. Philosophy goes out the window. At that moment we are reminded that we are - or at least should be - that child. That child truly understands prayer, crying out in real need.
Even more than that - we know that ultimately, none of us can resist that cry. There isn't a soul among us who doesn't want to soothe the pain of that baby. And so we turn to God, knowing that as אבינו שבשמים, He cannot resist our cries. While we may not be able to comprehend the complex nature of our relationship with ה', we know what it feels like to be children, and to be parents moved by their pain. That wail coming from the back of the shul not only shatters the silence but has the power to transform us, so that each one of us is a frightened little child calling for a daddy. Gone are the struggles to concentrate on the awe of ימים נוראים or to find some meaning in the seemingly endless תפלה. They are replaced with a single image - a self image - of a little boy or girl. And what Father could resist the plaintive cries of millions of His children?