I have spent the past several months looking for the perfect, inviting, captivating, exciting, interesting, and engaging opening for the sermon, all to no avail. And so I’ll begin with a seemingly obvious and easy question; “why are we here”. Or to put it another way “what do we want to hear?”
There is that beautiful passage in our prayer books: “each of us enters this synagogue with a different need...” But the answer to most of the needs listed; gratitude and joy, sorrow, healing, support, frustration, understanding, and warmth can be found in many places. Why then do we come to the synagogue, this place of worship, each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like swallows returning to Capestrano?
Could it be as it says in the prayer “ some spirits hunger?” Our souls hunger, and if so his this the place we feed them with our prayer? We listen to music, hear and read words passed down through the centuries. But as we sit and listen to the music and the words of the prayers, as we sing and read aloud melodies and words both familiar and strange, are we praying? What does it even mean to pray? How does one pray when the words are are not ours? How does one pray ideas and theologies blatantly at odds with what we believe or want to believe?
Our liturgy on these Days of Awe includes what may be the most theologically challenging of all our prayers, the U’netaneh Tokef. “Let us declare the sacred power of this day... On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die... who by fire and who by water, wo by sword and who by beast; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted...” For the Yom Kippur afternoon I will lead an in depth examination of this prayer. But for now, suffice it to say that even if what I have always taught is true, that prayer should be seen as poetry to be interpreted, not prose merely to be accepted, the U’netaneh Tokef’s image of God sitting in heaven and writing our fate in the Book of Life challenges our sense of the world. Our experience teaches us that the world does not work this way. The righteous do not live longer and better than those who stray from the path God laid out for us. The good die as young or old as the wicked. Some of the kindest amongst us possess the least and the meanest possess the most.
So again I ask: “Why do we use words we do not understand and concepts we do not accept as truth?” If the prayers do not touch our soul, where does the responsibility lie? In ourselves? In the leaders of the service? In the prayers themselves?
In a recent article in the Journal of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Joel Mosberger wrote: “the challenge in our lives is to find ways to put our whole selves into the prayer experience whether that is as a part of ritualized communal prayer or daily as we go about our lives.” Rabbi Mosberger sets for us a challenging goal, but how do we accomplish it?
Perhaps the words of our great medeaval philosopher Bachya Ibn Pakuda can help us find the path: “The words of prayers,” he says, “are like the husk covering the grain, and reflection on their meaning is like the kernel. Prayer itself is like the body, and reflecting on its meaning is like the spirit. If we merely utter the words of prayers while thinking about matters other than prayer, it is like a body without a spirit, a husk without a kernel, the body is present but the mind is absent.”
From this we can see that the way to meaningful prayer lies not emotion alone, but rather in thought. As we know, the only person who can truly focus your mind is you yourself. The Talmudic rabbis taught that we are to pray with Kavanah - intention. And while we usually define intention as an emotional process, for the Talmudic rabbis, like for the mystics of Jewish, Christian and eastern traditions, intention encompasses clearing one’s mind of all else other than the prayer we are praying and through contemplation, active thinking, finding meaning in the words we read and hear.
As I have said from this bema before, much of my personal spirituality is embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the prayers and the music. As Mary Travers, aleha l’shalom, sang: “music speaks louder than words.” But in reality, our liturgical music serves merely as a conduit allowing the words to infuse our minds like an IV facilitates medicine entering our bodies.
If we do not connect with the words, perhaps it is our focus that is askew. Dr. Max Arzt of blessed memory used to tell this story: “A group of tourists were going through the Louvre making superficial comments like: ‘what do you think of this one’ or ‘this one is nice’. The guards at the Louvre are not everyday run of the mill guards. Guarding the Louvre is not their job or their career it is their passion. One of them finally said to the tourists: ‘I think that you should know that these paintings have been here for a long time. They are no longer on trial. Instead, they judge the people who come to look at them.’”
The same is true with our prayers. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually means judgement. And the verb to pray, l’hitpaleil, means to judge oneself. Thus we find the entire task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Hebrew word for prayer. As we pray, we examine where we have been and how we have behaved. This gives us the foundation to determine for ourselves, how we, not God sitting on a throne writing in an actual book, will write ourselves into the book of life and deeds through our actions and our thoughts.
Prayer, our minds evaluating ourselves and finding meaning in the word can be, and in this age often is, one of the hardest things we can do. Oh, if we are in crisis prayer becomes easy. But because we, who so value intellect and thought, focus instead on the emotionality of prayer, we build ourselves a barrier that is too high and too wide and block ourselves from truly praying. We set ourselves up to believe that prayer must provide us with an emotional high to be considered meaningful. Rather, meaningful prayer must lead us to a finding of the self.
Twelve years ago, in 1997, I took my first online Judaic studies course. The topic, prayer. The instructors, Rabbi Reuven and Barbara Sutnick taught in that class: “‘We live in an age when it is not fashionable to pray’ observes Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin in his book To Pray As A Jew. Perhaps we are too spiritually ‘arrogant’ to pray; for prayer requires a measure of awe and modesty and a sense of gratitude for what we have in life. Could it be that modern men and women have been so successful in building a wall of sophisticated civilization around themselves that they attribute all that they see to their own efficacy and power? Perhaps there are those who DO appreciate the power of the natural world yet choose not to pray because they have difficulty believing in the existence of a God to listen to prayers.” They go on to write: “everybody has SOME NOTION of what prayer is AND EVERYBODY HAS DIFFICULTY WITH PRAYER.”
The Sutnicks are correct. Each of us has difficulty with prayer at some time or other, at some level or other. A difficult prayer like the U’netaneh Tokef or a seemingly straight forward statement like the Shema can stymie our best efforts to pray with “all of our mind, all of our strength and all of our soul.”
Further, most of us have never been taught how to pray! We’ve sat through services. We’ve learned the words in religious school. We’ve even prayed our own spontaneous prayers. But, how to pray with intention, challenging our minds and the recesses of our souls is at least as difficult as the hardest subjects we studied in school. Yet, we haven’t taught or been taught how to pray. That is our failure and our responsibility as the religious and educational leaders of this congregation. And while our individuality demands personalized lessons in praying, that is no excuse for why before this evening, we really haven’t spoken of how to pray.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Norman Hirsch of Seattle, taught me how to pray. In each service, whether leader or congregant, whether alone or as part of a minyan, Rabbi Hirsch finds a sentence, a phrase, a word and like the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, he focuses his mind on understanding it fully. His mood, his recent and life long experiences, that is his soul, inspires which sentence, phrase or word speaks to him that day. But his mind finds the meaning. Perhaps then, while we find ease and comfort in our method of praying with everyone on the same page at the same time, the orthodox custom of each person praying at his or her own pace as Rabbi Hirsch does, is more conducive to praying with kavanah, with focused minds.
To this day, I never know going into a service what prayer my soul will send to my mind. If I try to predict what it will be, I am inevitably wrong. The unknown, this unpredictability constitutes the wonder and awe of a praying experience.
The early Chasidic masters understood what the Sutnicks describe as the difficulty of prayer. From the Baal Shem Tov through the first three generations of Chasidic Rebbes we learn story after story about just how hard it is for people to pray. They tell of uneducated Jews whose prayers consisted of reciting the aleph bet with the confidence that God would take the letters and put them in the proper order. I love the story of the boy whose prayer of playing the flute on Yom Kippur being recognized as the most meaningful prayer in the shul, because it was the only way he knew to pray and the music came from his soul.
Further, the Chasidic Masters tell of the times their minds were not able to handle the intellectual part of prayer. Even the greatest of Rebbes knew that at times, like the rest of us, all he could do was sing a niggun, dance a few steps, listen in silence to the rhythm of the Hebrew, or pray from his feelings. Professor David Ariel in his book Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart & Soul to Jewish Life expresses it thus: “If the words of the prayer book, someone else’s words, are not adequate, we can find our own words. Even if we sit or stand silent in the synagogue while everyone around us is reading, reciting, or chanting, the thing that truly matters is what we experience in our privacy.”
So please do not hear that I do not value the emotional component of prayer. As I look out at the congregation at each service, I see the emotion, the experience of privacy most especially during Kaddish. Few people ever take the time to read the English translation of the Kaddish let alone think about its meaning. It is the sound and rhythm of the words, it is the strength of being part of a congregation that moves each person We on the Bema also have the privilege of seeing in front of us at each service, the heart of the prayers expressed through beautiful movement; from bodies swaying with the music to out and out soulful dance.
So this year, let us accept this challengeduring these Days of Awe. do not rush. Stop and think about a prayer without worrying that the rest of the service passes you by. If your mind won’t or can’t engage, only then let the words or music infuse your heart and impact your soul. As Rabbi Larry Kushner says: “Prayer is like the hokey pokey. We have to put our whole selves in.”
May the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.