Yom Kippur 5782: Tefilah

A few weeks ago, we were blessed to have Rabbi Alan Lettofsky join us for Shabbat services. As one of the editors of the Conservative Movement’s newest series of siddurim, Rabbi Lettofsky spoke to a group of us about the process he and the committee engaged with to birth the new books. One of Rabbi Lettofsky’s comments has been haunting me. He talked about a synagogue that adopted the new siddur, but continues to use it to pray exactly the same way they have been praying for the past twenty plus years. As you know, our plan is to adopt this new siddur shortly after this High Holy Day season. My friends, I stand before you today praying wholeheartedly that we will not fall into the same trap.

The danger I speak of is far from new. The Talmud relates, “ha-oseh tefilato keva, ayn tefilato  tachanunim” or “one who makes their prayer fixed, this is prayer without  supplication.” (BT Berachot 29a) That is to say, that prayer that does not change to meet one’s own needs and desires barely qualifies as prayer at all.  Yet even our rabbis were not immune to inertia. Their solution was to fix the liturgy for a part of the prayer service called, tachanun, or supplication. By doing so, they ensured that our prayers would always include this required supplication. Way to put the cart before the horse. While we may judge our sages, we make continue to make the same mistake today. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, once commented, “[Inside of a synagogue] there is a lot of page-turning and a lot of word saying, but there is not always that much prayer going on. Prayer is what bubbles out from within you that you can’t stop. The desire to thank, the  desire to say, ‘I’m drowning, help’, the desire to say ‘I need some guidance’,  the desire to say, ‘I need connection’ or ‘I feel so connected that I just want  to breathe it in’. That’s real prayer. We Jews have obfuscated that by turning prayer into the occasion to read a book together.”[1]

For me, the necessary changes we made to our Shabbat services last winter because of the pandemic provided a welcome opportunity to reconsider how we pray. Those who livestreamed our services from home experienced a shorter service that varied somewhat week to week. I introduced many new tunes. Often, I spontaneously translated sections of the siddur in an attempt to guide our hearts toward their unique relevance to our situation. We experimented with new ways to connect with one another given our physical distance. We did so by imagining ourselves as heavenly angels in the Divine court, joining in a chorus of praise. I read short sections of each week’s Torah portion and translated with an eye for how we might internalize themes in each week’s parsha.

When we returned to in-person services, I made an attempt to keep the spirit of our livestream-only services alive. You may recall that I sent a letter to the congregation describing two different approaches to practice based upon Oholiav and Betzalel, the architects of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus. A dear friend and teacher once pointed out that the names of these skilled men hint at the balance we must achieve when building a vessel for our relationship with God. Bezalel means, “In God’s shadow.” Our tradition equates being in God’s shadow with protection and freedom. Bezalel only looks to God when considering how to serve God best. This frees him to be creative and innovative. Oholiav means, “In my father’s tent.” Oholiav has the same goal as Bezalel, to create a dwelling place for God, but does so the way it has always been done in his father’s tent. As we transitioned to in-person services, I explained all of this in a letter to the congregation. I concluded by explaining that ultimately, God’s partnership with both Bezalel and Oholiav teaches us that we need both innovation and tradition when creating a vessel in which God will dwell. I reminded us that as a community, we must consider how to be innovative, but also how to continue along the more than 80 year-old path paved by previous generations of Shaarey Tikvah members. I shared the famous adage of Rav Kook, who said, “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified.” I concluded by explaining that this goal felt reasonable, reachable, and sacred.

Six months after sending this letter, we have very much fallen back into our old patterns. It is healthy to have a six-month spiritual check-in. We gather on the High Holy Days to engage in teshuvah, to return to our ideal path. Roughly six months later we find ourselves at Passover, once again attempting to clear away the hametz and to free ourselves to serve a Master of our own choosing. I have long contended that much of the work of these holiday seasons is to break free from the harmful cycles in which we have become ensnared. Four years ago, our shul leadership revisited our community’s strategic plan. At that time, we recommitted to innovating our tefilah. We decided that we value participatory tefilah that feels authentic to our community and would eventually lead to the “walls shaking with the music that we make together.”  Inertia is powerful and energy is limited, especially as we continue to live through the Covid pandemic. However, the dangers of doing nothing are still far greater.

The Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of American Jews tells us that only 21% of American Jews say that their religion is very important to them, as compared to 41% of all Americans who would say the same. Only 12% of American Jews attend weekly religious services as compared to 27% of all Americans. 57% of American Jews proclaim that they are “just not interested” in attending synagogue. This tells me that we have work to do to prove to others and ourselves that our traditions can be meaningful, relevant, and interesting. By my best estimation, the 12% of American Jews who attend weekly religious services is roughly mirrored in the percentage of our shul’s members who attend weekly services. Even so, many of our members forgo arguably the most meaningful and intimate moments of our Shabbat services and arrive at some point during the Torah reading. While the public reading of the Torah can be a meaningful moment of learning and growth, it is not generally a time that stirs our hearts and souls. This is followed by the Musaf service. Based upon the additional sacrifices offered in the Temple on Shabbat, the Musaf liturgy begins with descriptions of Temple Service. We have our own little version of “Moshe had a little lamb” that ends with the lamb being slaughtered, cooked with flour and oil, and enjoyed with a hearty glass of wine. I think it is safe to say that the liturgy focuses more on this historical communal aspect of our history as opposed to the personal spiritual feeling of the earlier parts of the service. Again, don’t get me wrong. I love a good lamb chop as much as Hashem and the Priests did, but singing about one does not quite stir the soul. At this time of year when we examine our habits, perhaps there is room for our community to focus on our habits as we relate to Tefillah, to communication with the Divine.

Even our fixed prayers are meant to be heart and soul stirring experiences. The Talmud (BT Berachot 26b) teaches that through our three daily services, we mimic the behavior of our ancestors. We pray Shaharit in the morning as Abraham arose to pray in order to process the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. We pray Minchah in the afternoon as Isaac sought to pour out his heart in the solitude of nature while awaiting the arrival of Rebecca, his future bride. Our evening prayer reflects the faith and fear of Jacob as he struggled with the impending evening while alone on one of his earliest journeys. Jacob’s openness in that moment gave him the opportunity to dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and to consider God’s presence in the universe. Our ancestors used these moments to process their grief, anxiety, love, fear, and devotion. I believe that we should be using them in precisely the same ways.

It is clear that we have work to do. This is appropriate considering that avodah, or work, is one of the ways our sages describe tefillah. The Talmud asks the question, “Which is the work that is done within the heart? It is tefillah.” (BT Taanit 2a) Yom Kippur is a great day to begin imagining this heartwork. We read in the Song of Songs, “I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful. Hark, my beloved knocks!” (5:2) The Midrash understands this verse as a conversation between our people and The Holy One of Blessing. We say, “Master of the Universe, ‘we sleep’ for lack of Temple service, yet our hearts are awake as we offer prayers to You.’” In this context, we might consider the act of beating our chests during services today as an invitation to open up to our vulnerability and to approach the work ahead with open hearts and minds. We knock upon our hearts to open up the door to new experiences and to wake up to new possibilities for which our hearts yearn.

Among other things, this work will require partnership, learning, lifting our voices, discomfort, bravery, and patience. Last night I offered the words of a famous Mishnah from Pirke Avot as a formula for our engaging with our brothers and sisters in Israel. Today, I am going to take a page from my own playbook and offer another famous Mishnah from Pirke Avot that might help us define the work of our Divine service moving forward. שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: (Avot 1:2) Simon the Righteous was among the remnant of the Great Assembly. He would say, “The world stands upon three things: upon learning, upon prayer, and upon dealing in lovingkindness. Let’s dig a bit deeper:

עַל הַתּוֹרָה/The world stands on Torah: At its root, Torah means instruction. It is more than just a book, but a system of living. Yes, one feels Jewish in their heart and soul. However, one does Jewish by connecting their heart and soul to generations of learning and practice that preceded them. As a community, we will have to learn how to elevate our prayer. This will begin with working on a strong foundation in traditional prayer. In the margin of our Mahzor, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, of blessed memory is quoted just before the repetition of the Musaf Amidah. He said:

The individual worshipper prays according to what is written in the prayer book, but at the same time a person’s thoughts and words give to each phrase a unique interpretation formed by the personal and private overtones which a singular personality lends to a fixed text. The community in which a person prays adds its own contribution, whether of harmony or discord, elevating or diminishing the spriit of each individual worshipper praying with the congregation. The prayer of the individual worshipping within a congregation may be compared to a musical performance. Each musician gives a composition his or her own individual personal interpretation, but the orchestra constructs and gives and ensemble tone to the piece. Notwithstanding the fixed notation, each performance expresses the musician and the community of that time and place as much as it does the composer. (Mahzor Lev Shalem p. 141)

Our community will have to learn how to perform this symphony together. Starting next month, I plan to begin a weekly class using our new siddurim. Together we can dive deep into the structure and meaning of its pages with an eye toward how we can use them to innovate and elevate our communal tefilah.

וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה/The world stands upon prayer:

Our strategic plan talks about transcendent moments in our tefillah, like when our children gather around the aron katan and sing Etz Hayim while our adults gather hand in hand at the foot of the bimah. Or, when we do the wave and toss our children in the air while singing vaye’etayu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I truly believe these moments have the ability to sustain our congregation in the same way the Holy One sustains the universe. I am going to attempt to create a space for another of these moments in just a little while. However, I cannot do the work alone. In the coming weeks, I hope to begin working with a subset of the Worship Committee to scour the resources available to us and consider how we might add even more moments to our community’s prayer life that will sustain us.

וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים/Upon dealing in lovingkindness:

Not every part of our experimentation will speak to every one of us. This has to be okay. When I was in rabbinical school, I was blessed to be in an environment that was always open for prayerful experimentation. Upon entering the Beit Midrash in the morning, one never quite knew what sort of prayerful adventure the morning’s prayer leaders had in store for us. Art, movement, singing, meditation, silence, learning, dance, listening, or playing were all fair game. I must admit that there were instances when I was resistant, times I was offended, and moments when I was angry. Not every attempt will be a home run. This reminds me of one of my favorite midrashim from the Song of Songs. Verse 2:4 reads, “God’s banner over me is love.” The midrash suggests that we read the word meaning banner (v’diglo) as mistake (v’dilugo). In the way that a child may mispronounce something and we find it endearing, the midrash suggests that our missteps in prayer are endearing to the Holy One. If the Divine can accept them with love, I hope that our communal response will be the same. This does not mean that one can’t offer loving feedback as well. We will of course make plenty of space for that.

To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to engage in meaningful prayerful experimentation with a congregation, you want that meaningful prayerful experimentation to start right now.” I have passed around copies of a piyut, a liturgical poem. Like vaye’etayu, it has gained popularity in certain circles in recent history. The song is called Mareh Cohen. It describes the wonder and relief our ancestors experienced on Yom Kippur when the High Priest safely exited the Holy of Holies having made atonement for all of our transgressions. As they viewed the countenance of the High Priest, it was as if they were basking in the light of the Divine. While this poem is typically a part of the Avodah Service, I would argue that the emotion is relevant to all of our tefillot. We approach the Divine with some anxiety and trepidation, not exactly knowing what the outcome will be. However, when we’ve unburdened our hearts, we feel a sense of joy and relief. With your permission, I’ll invite you to look around the room at all the images of God occupying our pews, to learn and sing with me, and to bask in a joyful heavenly glow…

[1]  “What are we doing when we pray?” A lecture given by Rabbi Bradley Artson on 7/9/2014

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