HOW THIS RABBI PRAYS
Yom Kippur, 5771
September 18, 2010
One morning the renowned mystic Menachem Mendel of Kotzk had a surprise visit from a Lithuanian scholar. Despite their passionate love of God, everyone knew that the Jews of Kotzk rarely prayed at any set time, so the esteemed Litvak decided to see for himself. Knowing that Menachem Mendel was the most pious and wise member of the community, he asked him, “Is it true that no one, including you, daven morning prayers in the morning?”
The rabbi smiled sheepishly and nodded. When asked why, he replied, “I wake up while it’s still dark and the first thing I do is open the window. The air is sweet and quiet. I look at the moon and stars and watch them melt into the sky at dawn.
“The next thing I know, I hear footsteps and I see my friends going to work. I thank God for my hearing and sight! Because of my friends I have milk for my tea and bread to dunk it in–thank you, friends! I hear children laughing on the way to school. Before I know it, it’s eleven!”
The punctilious scholar was silent. After a moment, he asked if Menachem Mendel ever davened according to Jewish law.
“Yes,” he answered. “When I don’t open the window.”
What I want to talk about this morning is how to open the window to prayer. The Yiddish word is davenen, which can simply mean prayer, or it can mean a constant effort to experience God no matter what you’re doing. Reb Zalman calls the art of praying davenlogy, and this is what this generation needs, a guide to giving us the experience that brought our ancestors into ecstatic relationship with God. When we no longer had a place for animal sacrifice, we found a new way to draw near to the Beloved through sung words that came straight from the heart.
The prayerbook became our love song to God, but do we still find God in the siddur? My beloved teacher, Harold Schulweis writes, “Where do I begin? Where do I find God? How do I begin to pray? There is a tzelem Elohim, an image of God, implanted in me. The image of God I find in myself, in whom God breathes nishmat hayim–the divine breath of life. In each of us is a neshama, a soul whose origin is God. In prayer, I enter into the deepest parts of my self, discover who I am, and touch God’s presence.”
Is this your experience in prayer? Regardless of the community or movement, most Jews don’t experience services as a love fest. Services may trigger poignant memory, put you in touch with the community, and offer a new perspective about something, but few expect what Rabbi Schulweis describes. How many of you feel something when you pray? What is it that you feel?
Even the leaders have lost faith in prayer to open the heart. Rabbis and cantors, aware that they are gradually losing the attention of congregants during prayer, attempt to make services more entertaining. Many shuls have an early Torah study at nine that is well attended. Most leave before the service begins and no one talks about it. For the few that stay, the cantor offers music they can sing to, and the service becomes singalong. Is prayer becoming irrelevant in Jewish practice?
Praying, like living, is a creative activity that requires concentration, honesty, and a willingness to be vulnerable like a child. The formal prayers that we recite point us there to remind us that we are not angels, we are physical beings who know God with our bodies. In Psalm 81, we hear God kvetching: “If only My people would listen to Me, if the people Israel would walk in My ways…I would feed you with the richest wheat, with honey from the rock would I satisfy you.” We love those who feed us.
This morning I’ll share how I am wrestling with traditional text to find my prayer. The prayers we began the service with acknowledge our magnificent bodies that have sight as well as insight, that stand erect, and direct us to good deeds. Without our bodies that include our brains, how would we know we exist? I begin davening with the moment I am aware that I am here, and I start the journey to God by noticing and appreciating my miraculous container.
The first thing to upon awakening is to say thank You. “Modah Ani l’fanecha…I’m here again! You’ve given me breath and consciousness today, even before I know why. You’ve done it with compassion and abundant faith that I’ll do something to make the world better today. If You believe in me, how can I do less?”
When I reflect upon my returned consciousness and upon the intricacy of communication I know as awareness, I am no longer alone. This is how I find “access to invisible support”, as Reb Zalman says. What I’m describing is intimate. It isn’t “out there or up there”, but within me. I have a sense of the part of myself that feels interconnection. To put this more boldly, I am God and so are you.
To reach the godly part of myself, I dress to get into the mood. I put on a tallit, imagining God’s tallit as the light of the world, and I’ve got a little piece of it. As we did this morning, I put it over my head after the blessing, and it feels like the wings of the mother eagle taking me to the highest place.
When I place the shawl on my shoulders, I feel different. I am ready to move into the Godfield, the place of most transparency and vulnerability. I feel open, loving, relaxed, even cozy. It is here that I can and must tell the truth. I am going to meet the Indwelling One, the place where I feel, where I experience my heart.
Am I grateful that I have the desire and freedom to pray, to take a few minutes to remember who I really am? Or am I more conscious of an unresolved disagreement from the day before? I scan my body and am surprised to discover some dull ache or discomfort that I’d removed from consciousness. What else am I not noticing about me? Praying stops me my obliviousness and calls me to a deeper awareness.
It’s taken me a long time to get to this place of intimacy. When I began a regular prayer practice over twenty years ago, it took me years before I became good enough friends with the words to know them on my heart so I could close my eyes when I prayed. I prayed diligently, word for word, for years. Sometimes I’d ask myself why I did it. Who did I imagine I was listening? A few years ago, I had to admit that my prayer had become automatic, the opposite of what it is supposed to be.
I credit Jewish Renewal for my dissatisfaction, because it was there that I discovered how davening opens the heart. Our intention is to give you this experience, and probably the machzor in your hands, heavy with all those words, by itself, will not do it.
Here is what might. Imagine right now that our wonderful angels who have made this room our holy space for the High Holidays walking up and down the aisles with your favorite food. I’m thinking coffee ice cream, creamy Haagen Dazs. It’s cold on my tongue and sweet. Mmm. Thank you, God, for this delicious ice cream beginning with the cows, the grass that feeds them, the farmer that harvests the sugar cane. You’ve given me taste buds to enjoy it. I want You to taste with me so you’ll know how much I love it.
You might think this is a little unsophisticated as a way to know God. In truth, the way I have learned to pray goes against everything I’ve come to know as being a rational, powerful adult. Imagining the invisible and talking about it takes courage that some call faith.
Besides spending about twenty minutes a day in the morning davening, I spend a few minutes before I go to sleep reflecting on the miracle of sleep and awakening, asking that terrible thoughts and feelings stay away, and reviewing the day. I say the Shema and end with the last words of Adon Olam, “Into Your hand I entrust my spirit, while I sleep and awaken. With my spirit and body, You are with me and I am not afraid.” This prayer is so effective that I rarely finish it.
Because of my practice, I have moments throughout the day when I also feel God’s presence. When I’m listening to the radio in the car and hear a song from 1962, it takes me back to a summer day at my grandparents’ house on the Great South Bay of Long Island. I stop at that memory and enter into it.
What information do those feelings bring when I think of Grandma’s faded immaculate housedress and Grandpa bending over his prized tomato plants next to the hammock I fell out of a dozen times with my cousins? Although they have been dead for decades, I thank God for memory and for relationship that never ends while I have it. In that moment, I remember the joy and ease of sitting on the dock and eating plums, no worries of where they came from and how much they cost. It’s taken me a long time to say thank You for that day of pleasure.
The Jewish dance has always been like the fiddler on the roof, carefully balancing the realities of the moment with the dream of the ancestors. Each generation has the responsibility to find Torah in its time, and while Torah and God are unchanging, the way to access them does. Chabad may argue with this, but I don’t smell the fragrance of sacrificial lambs coming from their altar. Judaism still lives because for three thousand years it has continually changed its approach to God as it has evolved and matured in its understanding of God.
Why did they sacrifice their choicest animals? Like almost everything in Jewish ritual, the practice originated with neighboring cultures. What distinguished Jewish sacrifice was that it wasn’t done in fear but in love. “Here, God, is my best calf. I give her to you to remember where life comes from. I don’t want to learn this by losing a dear one or myself. So, in giving you a calf, I thank You for all You’ve given me.”
Why are we so reluctant to change the words of the siddur? There are thousands of prayer books, each reflecting the longing of a community, whether it is Polish, German, Ashkenazic, or Sephardic. All the books have one thing in common: a desire to feel God. For most of us, God is more imaginable as a friend than as a king. We don’t know how to relate to a monarch because we’ve never had one.
Every siddur, which means order, as in the word, seder, has the same structure that takes us through “Kol ha olamim, through the four worlds of action, feeling, thought, and contemplation. We begin in our bodies, move into our hearts to feel appreciation, bring our minds into awareness, and finally to stand before God and ask nakedly for what we need.
Rote prayer was easier than conscious prayer, yet I wanted more of God. By digging into the ancient wisdom revealed in the traditional service to find the pieces that have my name on them and by including my own words as well as contemporary readings, I’m getting to know myself better and am discovering the intention and power of prayer.
This is a great year to learn the healing power of davenen and to dedicate your life to live with an awareness of the numinous with all your heart, soul, and might. If not now, when?