“Prayers with Wheels, if not Wings”
Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, 5772 / October 29, 2011.
On the Occasion of the Launch of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh.
My grandmother marks every simcha with the words: “Zeh HaYom asah Adonai. Nagilah v’nism’cha vo!” “This is the day the Eternal God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Today feels like a simchah. To hold Siddur Pirchei Kodesh in our hands at last is indeed reason to rejoice, reason to celebrate the strength of our congregation united in prayer. We are at our best when we meet in our sanctuaries – whether quietly on weekday mornings and evenings, or on a grander scale for Shabbat and Festivals. Good things come from raising our voices together in prayer. May this siddur serve our people long and well.
I echo Rabbi Moscowitz’s true and important words of thanks for the good people who have brought this book into being: our devoted volunteers, our talented professionals, and our generous donors. I hope you will read The Acknowledgements, which come at the beginning of the siddur. But for now, let me simply say how grateful I am to Rabbi Moscowitz and the congregation for giving me the opportunity and the responsibility to serve as editor of our new siddur. It has truly been a privilege and I have learned so much along the way.
Ours is an ambitious congregation. When setting out to create this book, the Siddur Committee wondered what it means to be ambitious in prayer, how to honour the worship, which has filled our sanctuaries, and how to imagine what our future worship endeavours could be. As I say in the Introduction to the book: “Siddur Pirchei Kidesh is offered… to open the prayer experience to our people and to open our people to the experience of meaningful prayer. It is designed for the diverse community that is Holy Blossom Temple: seeker and skeptic, celebrant and mourner, traditionalist and newcomer, agnostic and activist, learner and leader. All are invited to turn these pages and discover what compels us as Jews, the ideas and expressions of faith which draw us closer to our God and to one another.”
To be given the opportunity to concentrate on what prayer does, how and when it “works” (quote, unquote), to reflect on why prayer has been and must remain central to Jewish life — has been professionally helpful and interesting. As a person who thinks about God and seeks a relationship with God, I also found this project to be personally fulfilling. The most gratifying aspect of this work, of course, was the study. The real pleasure came in the late night hours when sifting through the writings of our people, plucking the finest gems from the endlessly meandering caves of Jewish wisdom and verse, and matching them with the most essential or most troubling phrases of the siddur. To work on the pages of a prayerbook in this way is to literally “count our blessings.” The hardest part was having to leave so many of these gems behind, because the pockets on these pages just aren’t big enough to carry them all.
Prayers Misunderstood and Prayers Unanswered
Too often people open the prayerbook, read the translation, and say to themselves: “That’s not me. I don’t believe that.” Too often, they shut the book and shut down. But any siddur is a composite of quotations, poetry, and beliefs that clash and clamour. The Siddur is open for interpretation. It is exciting to see how the layers of the tel stack up, to consider what resonates, when, and why. Like verses of Torah, the prayers on the pages of the siddur cry out to be made relevant in our lives. They inspire; they challenge; they may even offend, but they are ours, to be made more and more ours.
And then, of course, there are the many worthy prayers that are not found on the pages of any siddur. These private, often desperate prayers go unanswered. I soundly reject the glib explanation that “God answered, but the answer was No.” That kind of theology is a trap that makes God out to be either callous or cruel and let’s us off the hook. Such false logic is demeaning of God and us both. Such a theory reduces prayer to simple bartering. Although I have also heard stories of miraculous recoveries and remarkable coincidences in people’s lives, stories of just-in-the-nick-of-time rescues that credit God’s power, I cannnot believe God intervenes in the world in response to prayers, no matter how worthy. Although my heart yearns for such a God — and at times, I confess, my soul prays in such hopes — my experience of this world belies the yearning of my heart. Fortunately, there are many other, more compelling models of Jewish prayer. Let me offer just one of them for consideration today.
In his book, For those to Can’t Believe, Rabbi Harold Schulweis writes about “intelligent prayer.” He says, “Thinking is prologue to prayer, for prayer is based on knowledge of what is real. To understand what is real is essential for the realization of the ideal. Jewish law forbids one to pray when intoxicated or confused. Why? Because prayer must lead to decision.”
Prayer is not the same as meditation. Meditation may be experiential; prayer ought to be consequential. Intelligent prayer must be grounded in the possibilities of the real world. Perhaps this is why the first in the long series of petitionary prayers included in the weekday Amidah asks for insight. Why? Because we need to be able to discern between reasonable and unreasonable prayers. Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that “To pray means to discriminate, to evaluate, to understand, in other words, to ask intelligently.”
An example: the Rabbis of the Talmud teach that to pray that the embryo of a newly pregnant woman is male is a prayer in vain. Why? Because it already is what it is! Similarly, they say that when hearing of a fire and rushing back to town, to pray that it is not your house that is on fire, is also a prayer in vain. Because it is what it is! To pray for God to alter events that have already taken place is worse than useless; it is an affront to God. The past will not be changed, even by the most heartfelt of prayers. But! The FUTURE depends upon our prayers! The future is crafted in our prayers! And this is really what I want to call attention to today as we welcome in our new prayerbook.
To Pray is Reflexive
The Hebrew verb, “to pray,” is “L’hitpaleil.” L’hitpaleil is a reflexive verb, which literally means, “To judge oneself.” (It sounds so thoroughly modern, “To pray is to judge oneself.” But it is an ancient word.) To be sure, there are Jewish supplication prayers, when we prostrate ourselves before the merciful God. There are exultation prayers, when we shout praises to the Creator of the Universe. There are petitionary prayers, when we dare ask for more. But all of these sub-categories of prayer are driving toward one end – to judge ourselves, to see ourselves for who we really are, to carefully consider if we like what we see and to ready ourselves to do better.
And where is God in this? God is the Light which allows us to see ourselves. God is the moral conscience that allows us to pass fair judgment on ourselves. God is the source of our physical strength and our intellect, which allow us to make for change.
The mystics teach that God is like the ocean and that prayer and meditation and life experience can help us to realize that each of us is like a single drop of water, bounding on the waves, immersed in the endless, bottomless waters that are God. But I am not a mystic and neither was Leon Modena. I prefer the teaching of this 17th c. French-Venician rabbi, Leon Modena, who taught about the power and purpose of true prayer with following metaphor… Imagine a man in a boat. He is rowing himself to shore. If one did not know better, it could appear that the man is pulling the shore to himself. But in fact, it is the man in the boat who is being moved, because the shore is fixed. So it is (says Modena) with prayer. We think that when we pray, we are moving God closer to our will. But true prayer does just the opposite. It moves us closer to God’s will.
This is prayer in motion. This is applied prayer. This is prayer with wheels, if not wings. When we leave the sanctuary more ready to BE good and to DO good, then our prayers have been answered. And God has everything to do with it. A great example came to me recently from a congregant via email. She writes this true story:
I’ve got to admit, (Rabbi) some prayers are more relate-able than others. We say the same prayers every week in services. Some, like “visit the sick,” are pretty clear and easy to integrate into my regular life. Other prayers seem foreign to me, extraneous. But yesterday I was sitting at my desk at work and I got this call from a former colleague, let’s call her Jane. Her first words were: “I have really bad news about… let’s call him Sam. He was arrested.” Jane asked if I could please attend the bail hearing the next morning. Sam’s lawyer said we needed to be there for 9:30, and it should only take about 15 minutes.
So I got up early, spent over an hour getting myself to some place in outer Scarborough. After going through security, I sat in the hall waiting for Jane and the lawyer. The hallway was full of people with that “waiting to see the Principal” vibe. Everyone was subdued and hushed and you could tell that today was a serious day for everyone there. The lawyer finally arrives and it suddenly becomes clear that everything is up in the air. Maybe the hearing will be at 9:30, maybe 10:30 or maybe 2:30, maybe today or maybe tomorrow. So I told the lawyer I’d wait until 10:30, but then I’d have to leave for an important meeting. And so I wait. I fuss with messages on my Blackberry. As I think of all the important things I have to do, my frustration grows. And then, as I am waiting and fussing, suddenly the words we say every week in services came to me: “…You free the captive and redeem the oppressed. You answer the moment we cry out.”
In a flash, I realized that the most important place in the world I could be right then, was in that hall, waiting to testify to the court that I knew Sam was honest, upright, and absolutely reliable. That my experience of him over the last 7 years assures me that he is an honorable man of spotless character. So I blew up my day and rebooked everything and I spent the rest of the day in that hall. When I was finally called into the courtroom to testify, I swore an oath and I promised to serve as a security, which means that if Sam breaks any of the rules, I have to give the court the little bit I have saved. And it was nothing but an honor to do it.
Later, when we were waiting for the paperwork to be signed and for Sam to be released, Jane turned to me and said, “We have a saying in India. When a miracle happens in daily life, we say ‘I heard the voice of God.’ When you answered your phone in your office yesterday, I heard the voice of God.”
And I (says our congregant) heard the words of our prayerbook: “You answer the moment we cry out.”
Yes. And Amen.
Now could this good congregant have done this upright thing, without any knowledge of the G’ulah prayer? Of course. Could she have done this act of chesed if she weren’t Jewish? Certainly. But people who know the prayerbook, people who have the prayers etched in their memory bank can access them, respond to them, make them real. People who consistantly put themselves among a praying community of fellow Jews have their religious identity constantly reinforced and strengthened. We carry the minyan with us wherever we go. The minyan becomes a loving jury that helps us judge ourselves well and fairly. People who make a habit of sitting in the presence of God, are also more likely to do the “stand-up” thing – not out of fear, but out of loyalty, chesed, as an expression of a covenantal relationship with our God. Because this congregant is in shul each Shabbat, offering prayers thoughtfully and with intention, she can be a good judge of her own character, and her prayer that day was heard and answered.
Remember Rabbi Modena’s teaching… The more I pray, the easier it is to row my boat to The Shore. The more I pray, the easier it is to steer my life closer to God’s will, to bring the world closer to perfection. The more I pray, the more likely I am to make my prayers heard and answered with “Yes. And Amen.” This is our deepest desire. To live each day hearing the echo of God’s voice, saying again and again, to us, through us, within us, “Yes. And Amen.”