Rabbi Amy Levin
D'var Torah First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5769: Prayer
Before I stopped watching Mel Gibson movies, I laughed and winced my way through the film “What Women Want.” The movie itself is really just another romantic comedy, but part of the premise that was so entertaining was an ability that Mel Gibson’s character acquired to be able to hear the “script” that ran through the heads of the women he met. It was quite an education for the guy Gibson portrayed. I wish that, for a moment, there would be some way for us to replay the scripts, the running streams of words and thoughts that were playing through each of our heads the last hour or so. What a cacophony that would be! “This seat is so uncomfortable, even standing up would be better!” “The cantor’s voice is so beautiful, I wish I could just close my eyes and listen to her.” “Look at how ‘x’ has aged since last year! He’s gained weight, too.” “Who shall live and who shall die? I don’t believe that’s how it works . . . but what if it is?” “I have an ark opening soon, I wonder if I have time to go to the bathroom and get back in time.” “I’m going to try to come to services more this year, I really am.” “I remember sitting next to my grandfather and listening to that melody.” “The sound of the shofar really gets to me.”
What we would hear is, that for all that we are in the same place at the same time, we are experiencing this morning differently.
The enterprise of communal worship, for all our unison singing, works differently for each of us. On one level, we are sharing the same experience, pondering the same words, singing the same melodies . . . but on the myriad levels below the surface, we are each bringing different levels of Jewish background and training, different kinds of faith, different memories of Rosh Hashanahs of the past, different personalities and different expectations. The wonder of it is that every once in a while for a few sweet moments, we do attain a kind of unity of consciousness and we are truly praying together.
In their comprehensive study of Prayer, entitled Prayer: A History, Philip and Carol Zaleski wrote: Prayer is at once spiritual and visceral: it stems from heart and gut as well as head. Prayer has been compared to a siege, a storm, a conflagration, a nosegay, a picnic in paradise. We may also liken it to an athletic event, such as the hurling of a javelin: a shaft of praise, petition, or penance aimed at a higher power. Like the javelin thrower, those who pray must be fit, the Zaleskis quote Chaucer: "Whoso will pray he must fast and be clean/And fat his soul, and make his body lean" (Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Somnour's Tale"). (Prayer Zaleski 6)
Personal prayer may be more satisfying when we follow Chaucer’s instruction to “fat our souls and make our bodies lean.” Our spiritual fitness, our capacity to hurl that javelin, that shaft of praise, petition or penance, is really up to us. To the degree we are moved to engage God in private conversation, that is the degree to which we will develop our spiritual fitness.
But Jewish communal prayer, the venture in which we are all engaged this morning, is a whole other matter. One could say that the bar is set pretty high for a satisfying Jewish communal prayer experience: there’s Hebrew, there’s a complex and lengthy structure to the prayer service, there’s Hebrew, there are mysterious moments sanctioned for standing and sitting, there are accoutrements like head-coverings and tallitot . . . and let’s not forget that there’s Hebrew.
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about you all. You, who some of my colleagues call “The Jews in the Pews.” How are you managing through these services? Are you getting any spiritual satisfaction out of your time in our sanctuary? Are you bored? Frustrated? Intimidated? Am I doing everything possible to help you engage?
Seven of you responded to my questionnaire about Tefillah-TY, about the shape and feel of our services and what they mean to you. I want to thank those people for taking the time and for sharing so frankly. Seven people out of over three hundred is not a statistical sampling, but there are a few things expressed in those responses that are interesting: Everyone agreed that they have a sense of sharing something important with others worshipping here. All but a few acknowledged a sense of communicating with God and enjoying singing along with everyone else. Two people hoped we would do more creative things in our services and two hoped for more English . . . although one person specified that the English should not just be translations of the Hebrew, but meaningful additions to enhance our service. Perhaps the respondents were a self-selecting group, because no one claimed to feel bored or frustrated at services, although three did argue passionately for shorter services. More than half listed as a negative association praying in an all-but-empty sanctuary. Looking over these seven responses, the importance of praying with a community jumps out. The one feeling shared by all is the sense of sharing something important with others who are here . . . so being here for each other is a crucial element of satisfying worship. And the disappointment of coming to services and not finding others here is the mirror image of that satisfaction of sharing.
There’s a school of thought, about Jewish prayer, which says that praying, that really reaching that fulfilling, uplifting state of true Jewish prayer is like learning a musical instrument: a neophyte pianist must learn where to place fingers on the keyboard, and endlessly practice scales, and repeat simple exercises over and over . . . after having mastered quite a list of skills, then the neophyte pianist can begin to aspire to really make music.
I was afraid that praying in a minyan . . . however large or small . . . had to be like that: first master all the skills; the Hebrew, the structure, the melodies, the choreography . . . and then we can hope to “make the music” to truly communicate with God through Jewish vocabulary and liturgy. That is how we have been teaching prayer in Jewish supplementary and day schools for quite a few generations now. Indeed, everyone in this room who received any form of Jewish education as a child was schooled in prayer in just that way. We learned the aleph/beit, we learned the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, we learned how to lead a service for a class Shabbat or bar or bat mitzvah . . . we demonstrated the skills that our teachers imparted to us. But I’m not sure we prayed.
I was stuck. I was really having a hard time figuring out how to approach communal Jewish prayer in any other way. It is not hard to see that our communal Jewish prayer has been satisfying to only a handful of our members . . . a stalwart, committed, persevering handful. But I want our communal Jewish prayer to be satisfying, uplifting, nourishing to that persevering handful plus many, many more. I was stuck with that image of having to master the basic techniques before making the music.
And then my daughter Adina, who many of you know is studying for a PhD in Physics, sent me an article that kick-started a whole paradigm shift for me in terms of how we can grow as Jewish pray-ers. When I send this sermon to Adina, she’ll probably be pretty astounded, because the last thing she had on her mind, I’m sure, when she shared this article with me was helping me over a conceptual hump. But help she did.
The article is written by a man named Paul Lockhart and is entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament.” This is how it begins:
A painter has just awakened from a nightmare...
I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom— no easels, no tubes of paint.
“Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!”
After class I spoke with the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” I asked. “Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and apply it to real-life painting situations— dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that. Mostly we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.”
“I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?”
“You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing yourself and your feelings and things like that—really way-out-there abstract stuff. I’ve got a degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
(A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart)
I’m afraid that in the world of Jewish education, the exercises and techniques that we substitute for prayer have as much in common with prayer as practicing dipping brushes in paint, wiping them off and painting by numbers has in common with painting . . . or, apparently, math!
I am afraid that hours of services have become, for some of us, anyway, senseless and soul-crushing instead of nourishing and spiritually uplifting. And that’s why you are not finding each other here to share those important things.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the author of the the commentary on our Sim Shalom prayerbook wrote: “In Revelation God reaches out to us, but in prayer we reach out to God.” (EJP 7) I suggest to you that in Revelation, God begins to build a bridge from the Divine side of the chasm, and in prayer, we begin to build a bridge from our human side. As God reveals and as we pray the two ends of the bridge come closer and closer. As God reveals, God seeks to be experienced by us and to experience us. As we pray, we seek to experience God and to be experienced by God.
Let’s imagine ourselves on that bridge for a moment. Close your eyes. Sit back in your seat, if you’re still holding a machzor, put it in the rack in front of you. Put your feet flat on the floor and imagine that you are standing on the edge of your side of the bridge, there’s a gap, and God is at the facing edge of the uncompleted bridge.
Introduce yourself to God: Fill in the blanks in the following sentences with your own words coming from your own heart:
Hello God. I am . . .
God, I want You to know what, who, is most dear to me:
God, I want You to know that what frightens me is:
God, I want You to know me, so I want to tell you about a hope that I treasure in my heart:
Keep your eyes closed and imagine God’s embrace . . . there is warmth, love, safety and acceptance enveloping you.
That cocoon of God’s embrace is spreading to include those who are sitting next to you, in front of you, behind you. We are all standing at the edge of that bridge . . . only now, our side and God’s side are much closer to each other than they were before.
You might want to hold the hand of someone next to you as you open your eyes . . .
Two thousand years ago, “Hillel the Elder said: ‘Do you not know that although there are thousands and hundreds of thousands of angels, yet God desires not their praise, but the praise of Israel. As it is written: “But You are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praise of Israel.” (Psalm 22:4) Avot d’Rabi Natan B 27:
What is our liturgy but the record of the words that Jews before us have crafted to praise God, to share gratitude for our very existence, and to be known to God . . . hopes, fears, points of pride and acknowledgments of shortcomings . . . to express appreciation for the warm, accepting, loving embrace that blesses us no matter what.
Prayer is not Torah. Prayer is our words, not God’s words. We decide what we want to say to God. In order to “enthrone God upon the praise of Israel”, we, Israel, must come together to decide what words we will use to pray. When an individual stands on the edge of an individually-built bridge, the connection to God is personal, idiosyncratic, specific to that relationship between God and an individual. When we stand on the edge of the bridge we have been constructing together, we need to speak together, otherwise God will only hear a cacophony, it would be a bridge, rather than a tower, of Babel. But to be Israel, forging a relationship with the God of Israel, we need to raise our voices together. . . that is liturgy.
Some planks of our bridge have been lifted from the Torah; some of the planks were contributed by Jews in the 12th century in Spain and from Jews in the Land of Israel in the 16th century. Yet other planks, planks of chant and music, have been reverently crafted and fixed into place by inspired Jews in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. And the joists are ready to receive our contributions to the bridge as well.
Not only will placing our contributions to Jewish prayer allow us to take a few steps closer to God together, but generations of Jews behind us will stand on our planks, as we have stood on the planks of our predecessors . . . our words will bring them closer to God just as the words of those 12th, 16th and 19th century Jews have brought us closer to God.
One of the words in Hebrew that we use for prayer is “tefillah.” By adding a suffix and creating the word Tefillati, we say “my prayer.” Most transliterations would probably spell “Tefillati with a “ti” at the end . . . but here at TY, at Torat Yisrael, we will be spelling “my prayer” with a “ty” at the end . .. Tefillah-Ty . . my prayer is the prayer of Torat Yisrael.
A couple of Sunday mornings a month, I will offer a Tefiilah-TY Workshop. In the sacred space we will create together over coffee and bagels and other good Sunday morning munchies, we will work on new planks for our bridge. In order to make sure that our engineering is sound, we will take a good look at the plans that have been in place for centuries, in order to understand why they have stood the test of time. We’ll study the structure of our bridge to make sure that our additions will not contribute to its collapse . . . and, as innumerable Jews before us have done, we will creatively, reverently craft our own planks and offer them to our Torat Yisrael family as a support for true prayer within the shelter of the walls of our synagogue.
Do not hesitate to join us. There is no high bar here. There is no level of observance, piety or education that is required to be part of our Tefillah-TY enterprise. Remember Hillel the Elder’s words: “God desires the praise of Israel.” The term “Israel” encompasses us all. The name Torat Yisrael encompasses us all. There is no one who deserves to sit at the Tefillah-TY table more than anyone else. Help us to create engaging, soul-nourishing worship.