Rosh Hashanah 5764
All languages reveal something of its culture, and Yiddish, especially its humor, tells us about a chapter of the Jewish people and something about ourselves. I have great fondness for the originality and irony of its curses. In a curse one might paradoxically wish that an enemy inherit a palace with 100 rooms and drop dead in every one of them. The blessing of the palace for a ghetto Jew is as ridiculous as the curse.
Every age has its challenges: war, famine, and disease have been the traditional villains, but we live with unique challenge: abundance is both our gift and curse. We are a generation overwhelmed, overstimulated, and over the top. We have too much stuff, too much work, too much diversion and distraction. We are often worn out by trying to do 25-hour days.
But that isn’t the greatest challenge: we are drowning in information, and words, precious instruments of God that can unlock the heart and mind, have lost their meaning in the roar of voices competing for our attention.
I’ve chosen four words to look through, as prisms, to discover wisdom Judaism with you this High Holidays: four elusive, pregnant words, that are two pairs of synonyms. It is in how they differ and are unique that we glimpse God’s presence in the details. Tonight we’ll begin with prayer.
I asked a friend what he thought about prayer and he said that he’d never done it. For those of you who are like my friend, spiritual but spiritually homeless, I invite you to consider that prayer has been around for a long time as a way to the transcendent. It is an art as well as a skill to pray, perhaps a lost art that our generation would find useful.
We need to learn how to pray as if it were like water and food, something upon which our lives depend. We need to pray loudly enough to crack open the words that will release the heart and softly enough that we can hear the heart’s cry. Like a tallit, the words should enfold and console us, so that when we emerge from our prayers, we feel better, like leaving the gym or the therapist’s office. But we don’t pray because it gives us pleasure or comfort. We pray because God desires our prayer. That may be one reason why we exist.
Nachman of Bratslav believed that disease literally meant dis-ease and reflected spiritual illness. When he lay dying at 38 with tuberculosis, he saw his disease as emblematic. He carried the sickness of his people living in the modern era, which questioned God and saw prayer as irrelevant. He couldn’t breathe, and prayer requires breath. 150 years later, we have forgotten how to pray. Torah, prayer, and good deeds are the way for Jews. How can we live without prayer?
Although I said The Lord’s Prayer daily for years in grammar school, I knew nothing about prayer. After a while, when many things I prayed for didn’t happen–a good grade, a bike, to be good–I lost interest in God and prayer. No way was this a relationship: if God does what God wants, what’s the use of my prayer? What I wanted was a spell, a magical incantation that could deliver on the spot. The Talmud tells us that “the one who offers prayers and expects fulfillment will in the end suffer vexation of the heart, as it is written, ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick.'”
When I returned to praying it was for a friend. I began to learn the morning prayers so I could offer a a traditional prayer for Barbara, who had been in the hospital for a month. Childhood diabetes had taken both her legs, the wound wasn’t healing, and the doctors now wanted to operate on her intestines. To see my brilliant, beautiful, playful friend in agony forced me either to abandon God or to cry out in prayer.
I prayed that Barbara’s physical and emotional anguish end. I prayed for her courage and patience, and I prayed for guidance in being a help to her. I still hoped for a cure, but miracle takes many forms, including the grace of not being afraid of dying. Several days later Barbara decided that it was time for a new adventure and ordered her dialysis stopped. A children’s book writer, seller, and reviewer, she declared, “Let the wild rumpus begin!” She called and saw everyone that she wanted to say goodbye to. We brought in food, flowers, and music. Joe Cocker and Bette Midler helped us through two transcendent days, and we witnessed a woman who had loved her life and was ready, not resigned, to leave the planet.
One of Barbara’s final gifts to me was getting me started in a daily prayer practice. Praying made me feel less alone and I wanted to keep up the relationship. I was grateful for the opportunity to enter a safe place for a half hour a day with a virtual partner we also know as the Holy One. My prayers now expanded to praise and thanks as well as petition. I still didn’t know exactly to Whom I prayed, but I was learning the answer to who prays. It is not the one who wants magic spells, it is the one who wants a modality that helps us to enter the highest realm. When AJ Heschel wrote, “Prayer may not save us but makes us worth saving,” he understood that prayer changes the petitioner: it is the self who is really the target of prayer. Do I petition more than praise? Do I ask for wealth? Or do I ask for wonder?
My days are better when I pray. It’s like setting the arrow–my day–firmly into the bow of my prayers. First I offer the thank you, thank you, thank you so much, God! category of prayer. I offer thanks for the gift of my life, prayers of praise for the glorious world.
I also appreciate the “help me! please! please, i’m begging!” prayer. Theologians call this the petitionary prayer that acknowledges the imperfection of the world and God’s power to heal. You can do it, God, I know you can!
The third kind of prayer is the halleluyah: YAY GOD! Wow! Wow!. With these words we jump from our little selves and glimpse the expansive world of God. Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis speaks of Elohim as the God of isness: illness, death, and daybreak are examples.
Morning prayers take about thirty minutes and most of the words come from the siddur, or prayer book. The structure, or keva, is eighteen hundred years old, and I stick with it, despite imperfection. For starters, they are all in the masculine grammar. Some reflect fear and suspicion of the other. But I say them anyway, because I trust that the ones who wrote the prayers love, grieve, and fear just as I do. They loved mercy and they did justly. They failed and they never gave up. They never forgot their ancestors and they dreamed a glorious future for their children. I’m grateful to claim them as my family.
So I speak most of the traditional liturgy, either for its wisdom or for the merit of the writer and his generation. The prayers have been spoken over a thousand years. Who am I to toss the jewel out? Do I have better words?
If you’re looking for a new modality, an elegant technology to shift the paradigm from the mundane and to the transcendent, consider prayer. Here are ten tips to speed you on your trip:
1. No shortcuts. We live in a time where we want everything fast, including enlightenment. Doesn’t happen that way. If 80 percent of life is showing up, then it takes time to get comfortable with the practice, e.g. not having to look up the starting page. Don’t expect to know whether prayer is for you until you’ve done it for years. Patience is a good practice, too.
2. Learn. The siddur is the one book that gives you everything you need to know about Judaism. Since it is an inspired weaving of prayer, Torah and commentary, history, music, poetry, and literature, studying the siddur can enrich the mind and deepen the meaning of the words in the service.
3. Sing. The Presbyterians say that the one who sings the prayer prays twice. All our liturgy is intended to be heard as well as read, and most of it is musical. Torah has several melodies devoted for specific times, for example. Sing the prayers either in the traditional nusach (simple repetitive melody) or make one up. Music opens the heart and feelings are another word for angels.
4. If possible, pray with others. We need ten Jews to say Kaddish and read Torah because both experiences are so important that we cannot have them alone or just a few. It’s like a party: you need critical mass for a certain energy. It’s not easy to find daily minyan in Santa Fe, so do at least once a week, on Shabbat.
5. Dress for the occasion. Get yourself a tallit and a kippah, and pick a place to pray. Special garment and special place formalizes the experience. That being said, I’ve davened in lots of places, including airplanes, hotel rooms, whatever. Having a mind’s eye picture of my usual spot, and carrying my tallit and prayer book with me when I travel, helps me to make makom wherever I am.
6. Bite the bullet and learn Hebrew. You don’t have to master it, become friends with it. Kabbalists say that the world is made of Hebrew letters, alephs instead of atoms. It’s a beautiful language filled with amazement. Example: prayer is tefilah in Hebrew, from the root pallel, to judge. To pray is a reflexive verb, l’hitpallel, which means to judge oneself.
7. Stay awake. Don’t just mumble the prayers. If your mind glazes over, fix your eye on a word–ahavah, shalom, baruch, whatever–and stay there open to all possibilities that the word may offer. Don’t try to say every word, rush through the Hebrew, unsure of anything you’ve said.
8. Be daily. Whether it’s simply modah ani or the shema, attempt a special time each day, such as awakening or going to sleep, when you pray. Every day that the sun rises, God deserves thanks, yes?
9. Be creative. One of my teachers suggested that as a spiritual exercise I go somewhere where I can be alone and say “Help me” over and over for fifteen minutes. Experiment with your prayer. If you find a new prayer inside yourself, don’t be shy about adding it to your service.
10. Be humble in your despair. Don’t feel like a failure at prayer because you don’t know whether it’s done you any good. It has. Slow, persistent effort to connect with the transcendent regularly, along with study and bestowing loving kindness, will make real difference in your life. Guaranteed. Give it six months and you’ll put me in your prayers. What do you imagine God prays for? You are in the Image, God’s prayer is your prayer. Pray it with everything you are and have, because your soul life depends on it. And if we pray like this together, who knows how we might change the world?