The Rabbi's Column
Pray As If It Means (Some/Every)thing - Summer 2019 - Liturgy #8
And may the worship of Your people, Israel, be always be acceptable - God who is near to all who call.
Avodah (R’tzei) - T’fillah section of the liturgy

Prayer is a tricky thing.  We spend a great deal of time at the Temple teaching children the correct forms of Jewish communal prayer - the right pronunciation, tune or chant, and choreography.  Recently, we have begun to go deeper, and help them find meaning not only in individual prayers, but in worship as a whole.  We are getting better at explaining why Jews come together to pray, and what we hope to get out of those moments.  We spend virtually no time at all on individual prayer - on the communication with the Divine that happens outside of prescribed worship; personal prayer which does not require the participation of others.

One of the common questions that I hear from students is, “Why do I have to learn Hebrew?”  Beyond the question of difficulty and effort, there is an earnest inquiry - “Doesn’t God understand every language?”  The answer that we give is about community - Jews throughout history and all over the world today, pray (at least in part) in Hebrew.  Our Confirmation students, when we worship together with our sister congregation in Budapest, feel at home because, while the Hungarian parts are different, as are some of the tunes, the words of the Sh’ma, the v’ahavta, the aleinu, and so much else is familiar.  At that moment a bond is formed: we have something in common.

Yet the question remains valid. Further, how can we create spontaneous, heartfelt, personal prayer, in a language which we do not speak or even fully understand?  The prayer known as the avodah comes to answer this question.  When the rabbinic sages of two thousand years ago were moving Jewish worship from sacrifices offered in the (then newly destroyed) Temple in Jerusalem to this new concept of offering up words of prayer, they were nervous about whether it would work - whether the act of verbal prayer would carry the power and transformation of sacrifice.  In the service, at the end of the amidah, they placed this prayer, which was both a hope and an apology for the whole effort.  We ask God, in words, that our prayers will be acceptable, in place of those sacrifices.  The original version contained a promise to return to sacrifice once the Temple was rebuilt; that this was only a temporary solution, for use in exile.  Reform Judaism, which threw out the idea of a Messianic return to a rebuilt Temple, removed that reference, but kept the idea of praying that our prayer would be sufficient, would be formed correctly, would be pleasing, would be acceptable.

However, this prayer has more meaning than just an apologia for prayer in place of sacrifice.  The words imagine a greater truth - whatever we offer in worship to God, we trust it will be acceptable, as we believe that God is near to those who call.  The very act of reaching out to God is what draws God near.  For those who believe in a Theistic God - a God who hears prayers and responds, the idea is easily comprehensible.  For those with different Divine concepts, this metaphor may tend to alienate rather than bring close.  Let us then imagine the motion in the opposite direction.  When we open ourselves up to the Divine, then we let God, who is already near, in.  God, not as an external object or separate being, but, perhaps, the concept that ties us to other creatures, the spark we all have in common.  For those who understand God as the voice within themselves that calls them to do better, prayer is the moment of silencing the other voices, and focussing on the Divine, on our better nature.  For those who are called to transcendence by the world around them, prayer is the moment to step away from the centrality of ourselves, and be overwhelmed by the world of nature.
May the worship of Your people Israel, be acceptable to You, God who is near to all who call.  No matter what the nature of that worship, if it is a moment of opening ourselves up, of allowing the concept of something beyond ourselves - our ties to humanity, to each other, to the world, to a higher power - then let us learn to accept that moment as true worship and prayer.  Only then can we find the usefulness of prayer, once we open ourselves up to the possibility that we actually have the power to do it correctly.

Let us end this year’s study of liturgy with the words that bring us out of our silent prayer, our prayer of the heart, in our worship service - May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, be right and proper prayers before You, our sure and secure Anchor, the Idea through which we save the world.
Truth and Hope - April/May 2019 - Liturgy #7
All this is true and trustworthy, and sustaining for us... Evening G’ulah
True and enduring, beloved, and precious, awesome, good, and beautiful is this teaching - for us, forever. - Morning G’ulah

The section known as the sh’ma and its blessings is added to each evening and morning service.  In addition to the bar’chu and sh’ma/v’ahavta, the hashkiveinu - which is added in the evening, and the v’shamru - which is added on shabbat evening, there are three prayers that highlight the three most important formative events in our Jewish history - creation, revelation, and redemption.  Creation (ma’ariv aravim in the evening or yotzeir or in the morning) and revelation (ahavat olam in the evening or ahava rabbah in the morning) occur between the bar’chu and the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The first obviously commemorates the creation of the world and humanity - a universalistic event. The second commemorates standing at Mount Sinai and entering into covenant with the Divine, through the receipt of the commandments.  The third, the g’ulah, includes not just words from the song we sang after the parting of the sea - the mi chamocha, but a section before which, in both the evening and the morning, begins with the word emet - truth.

Amateur historians may note that the prayers do not proceed in the order of the historical events.  The world was created, then we were redeemed from slavery, then we received the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Yet, the liturgical norm is to read the creation prayer, then the revelation prayer, and then the redemption prayer, only after the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The original authors of the prayerbook explained that while creation and revelation had already happened, there was still need for a future redemption.  The exodus from Egypt was one example of God freeing us. They believed there would be more to come in the future, ending with the redemption of the messianic age, when all would be free forever. Therefore, while we remember being freed from slavery in the past, we also look to the future.

Looking to the future is the reason for the emphasis on truth in the g’ulah. We believe in the truth of past and future redemption.  Just like a scientific hypothesis that is proven by repeated results, we look to our past to prove the future. Our ancestors who were exiled in Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, brought back the Torah with its story of Egyptian redemption, which kept them faithfully awaiting their own journey to freedom.  I had lunch with a Black pastor this week who told me that so many African-Americans became Christian, because the Exodus story of redemption gave them hope of escaping slavery.  They rejected the Christianity that justified slavery and focussed on the Old Testament teaching of liberation.

For Jews and for African-Americans (and doubly so for those who are both), the truth of eventual redemption is a desperate hope that we cling to against all odds.  Today, as we see anti-Semitism on the rise, tropes that we thought were gone forever re-appear, we might despair at ever truly finding freedom from fear.  African-Americans, who may have escaped the bonds of chattel slavery, once again found themselves deprived of rights and freedom by Jim Crow laws in the South and institutionalized discrimination in the North.  After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s, overt racism moved underground, while structural discrimination in housing, education, and imprisonment rose in proportion.  Today, even overt racism has reappeared, with groups championing the superiority of the white, European race.  Where is the freedom promised in previous redemptions?  At what point do we give up hope?

True and enduring, beloved and precious; it is true and trustworthy - and sustains us.  The g’ulah comes to remind us that there is a path forward, that redemption will come.  In our modern world, we have learned the lessons of previous journeys and know that we must, like the Biblical Nachshon, take the first steps ourselves.  When we despair, we not only turn to the repeated redemptions of our past, but also look to find partners who have travelled similar paths.  The alliance between African-Americans and Jews in the 1960’s came out of this shared language of Exodus and common understanding of redemption.  The connection has frayed in the past decades.  Facing resurging racism and anti-Semitism, we have to work together on both sides to find those truths and restore hope together.  Those are the truths that are true and enduring, beloved and precious - loving the stranger as ourselves, and standing together to pursue justice and peace.

Body and Soul - March 2019 - Liturgy #6
Blessed are You, Adonai, Healer of all flesh, Miracle-Maker. - Asher yatzar, morning liturgy
Blessed are You, Adonai, in whose hands are the souls of every living being, and the breath of every corporeal human. - Elohai nishamah [These prayers are paired in the morning liturgy.]

There is an argument for faith in the existence of God that goes this way: When asked, how can a rational person believe in an invisible God, with no proof of God’s action in the world, the answer is that love, too, is invisible, but we believe in it all the same.  We ascribe to love many tangible effects - emotional and even physical.  We spend a great deal of effort in pursuing love; even in discussing the subject.

Our lives are not just the product of the visible and the tangible, that which is measurable by science.  The rabbis who created the prayerbook saw a duality that they needed to respect in their order of worship. The section of the service now known as the morning blessings, are a collection of the realizations that a reflective (feel free to read “mindful”) person might have as they come into a new day.  One of those on-going revelations was the push and pull between physicality and incorporeality. 

We are reminded each morning of the physical needs of our bodies, as we creak out of bed into the bathroom.  The asher yatzar, which is sometimes known as the bathroom prayer, is a rueful acknowledgement that our bodies are complex; that sometimes parts that are supposed to open, close,  and parts that are supposed to stay closed, open.  Sometimes this is a minor inconvenience; sometimes it can be mortal.  The text of the prayer challenges God by saying that if the right parts are not doing the right things, we are unable to praise God, let alone do anything else.

Immediately following this prayer, which is firmly rooted in the concrete and touch-able, the Sages contemplated the invisible parts of our existence, those things which we cannot see, hear, touch or taste, but nonetheless, propel us forward in our daily journeys.  There is breath - inhaling and exhaling- a mixture of tangible and intangible.  There is thought - abstract and that which causes us to move. There are emotions - which may cause physical reactions but are invisible in and of themselves.  We thank God for having returned those things, which may be invisible to us while we sleep, into our bodies each morning.  Together, this intangibles make up the soul - a word in English with at least three different words in Hebrew - some connected to breath, to wind, to spirit.  The Sages imagined there was an invisible animation of all life, but also a different animation of thought and emotion.

God is the source of both - a body so complex and intricate that we still struggle to understand how it works, and so often fail to find ways to fix it when it does not; and a soul invisible and unmeasurable, but also so obvious when no longer present.  We acknowledge the frailty of each part, on its own, as well as delicate balance between as we come to these prayers each morning.  When so much is beyond our power, we ask for the visible and invisible to be maintained, to remain in relationship and in balance, so that we may pursue the tasks of our life.

Judaism is a pretext to stand back and see the context of our lives - not only to learn how we should act and what our role is in the world, but also a chance for us to appreciate what we have; to acknowledge the fear and the knife’s edge on which we walk, yet to let that fear go in the common knowledge that the price we pay for existence is often anxiety for its continuance.

We pray and we have faith, because there are things that we can see and touch, and things that we cannot; things that we can influence, and things that are beyond our grasp.  Prayer may be an attempt to control, a method to understand, or even a moment to give thanks.  Prayer is invisible, except as it affects what we do.

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