Divre Harav – October/2021

Jewish Prayer 103 – Framing the Shema

Jewish prayer 101 and 102 covered the Shema (November, 2020) and the Amidah (March, 2021). You can find the articles on my blog, EmbodiedTorah.org or on AhavasIsraelGR.org by searching or scrolling down to the older articles.

Once you are comfortable with the words of the Shema (English or Hebrew), the next step is to enrich the Shema with some context by adding framing prayers. The frame places the Shema in the context of a daily prayer practice and forms a bridge between engaging with God and Torah through study (the Shema) and engaging with God directly through prayer (the Amidah).

Gratitude is central to a prayer practice. The quality of thankfulness doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It is something which needs to be practiced, day in and day out, to remind ourselves to be grateful. The morning and evening Shema provide two touchpoints in the rhythm of our day to practice gratitude. We are grateful for creation, we are grateful for God’s love, we are grateful for Torah and mitzvot, leading to tikkun (repair) and redemption, and we are grateful for peace and security. The outline of the entire Shema unit is as follows:

  • Blessing of creation – Yotzer or  (morning) or Ma’ariv Aravim  (evening).
  • Blessing of God’s love towards us – Ahavah rabah or Ahavat olam.
  • | Three paragraphs of the Shema:
  • | Shema/Ve’ahavta – Command of our love for God/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vehaya im shamoa – Theodicy/Tefillin/Mezuzah.
  • | Vayomer – Tzitzit/Mitzvot
  • Blessing of Redemption – Ge’ulah.
  • Blessing of peace and protection – Hashkivanu.

As you build your own prayer practice, you might draw upon the words of the Siddur to offer some words of gratitude to focus your thoughts before the Shema and to reinforce the message of the Shema afterwards. Leading into the recitation of the Shema are two blessings. The first connects us with nature. The version preceding the morning Shema focuses on the light of the rising sun. The version before the evening Shema, as we watch the sun set, focuses on the darkness.

Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation. You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy; in Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation. …. The good light God created reflects God’s splendor; radiant lights surround God’s throne. … Praise shall be Yours, Adonai our God, for Your wondrous works, for the lights You have fashioned, the sun and the moon which reflect Your glory …. Praised are You, Adonai, Creator of lights.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the Universe, who word brings on evening, who alternates the seasons, and arranges the stars… God creates day and night, rolling the light away from before darkness, and darkness from before light …. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who brings on evening.

The second blessing before the Shema  is based on the central idea of the Shema, the instruction “You shall love Adonai your God ….” The blessing just prior to this passage asserts that the loving relationship is mutual, that it is because of God’s love for us that God gave us Torah and mitzvot.

Deep is Your love for us, Adonai our God, boundless Your tender compassion … Praised are You, Adonai who loves God’s people Israel.

Following the Shema is a blessing connecting the mitzvot embedded in the Shema to redemption. In the morning there is no break between blessing God the Redeemer and engaging with God in prayer. In the evening, as the day is ending, there is an additional blessing for peace and protection.

Your teaching is true and enduring. Your words are established forever. Awesome and revered are they, eternally right; well ordered are they, always acceptable. They are sweet and pleasant and precious, good and beautiful and beloved …. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Lie us down, Adonai our God, in peace; and raise us up again, our Ruler, in life …. Shield us; remove from us every enemy, pestilence, sword, famine, and sorrow …. Blessed are You, Adonai, who guards the people Israel forever.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yotzer Or – Creator of light
  • Ma’ariv Aravim – the One who makes the evening 
  • Ahavah Rabbah – A great love
  • Ge’ulah – Redemption
  • Shomer – Guardian

Divre Harav – September, 2021

Now is the time to begin thinking about what you want to get out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Ahavas Israel and how the synagogue can add to your life in the year that follows.

Because you are reading these words, probably a member of the synagogue or considering membership, I’m guessing that some level of Jewish content in your life is important to you. You may have Holocaust survivors or victims in your family tree and are affirming a Jewish connection because of that. You might enjoy Jewish community and culture, Jewish music or literature. You might feel connected to specific Jewish practices. You might be moved by a sense of God and even feel a sense of commandedness with respect to mitzvot.

My job is to enable you to deepen your connection to traditional Jewish practice, to convince you that there is something about prayer, Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the system of Torah and Jewish ethics that is worth your time. The mission of the synagogue is to deepen your connection, to see you become more fully Jewish, that over the course of your lifetime, you are engaged in a continual journey of Jewish discovery.

What’s the benefit to you? I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t believe that my life is better because of Shabbat, because of the time I spend in prayer, and because the time I spend in Torah helps me to be a better person and make better choices.

That is why beginning this year, I will be offering you a program designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute called “Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism.” It is:

●  A sophisticated introduction to foundational concepts of Judaism and Jewish life,

●  An invitation for learners to join Judaism’s interpretive conversation, and

●  A curriculum designed specifically to be accessible for adult learners taking their first steps into Jewish thought.


It’s basic aims are:

●  To explore and make accessible the most compelling and deepest questions in Jewish thought,

●  To demonstrate the principles and debates that underlie our Jewish heritage, and

●  To reject the assumption that every learner is on track toward practicing Judaism in a specified way.

Whether a Sunday morning conversation, an afternoon study group, or evening class, please make time to:

●  Explore the role of peoplehood in Judaism,

●  Wrestle with the complexity of faith in our tradition,

●  Debate the meaning of mitzvot, and

●  Engage in conversations about Jewish ethics.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Am – People
  • Emunah – Faith
  • Avodah – Practice
  • Musar – Ethics

Divre Harav – November/2020

One of the results of the pandemic worldwide is the necessity of “doing Judaism” at home with less support from a community. Judaism has always been a home based religion, centered around the idea of each individual responsible for their own engagement with mitzvah. The requirement of minyan adds a community aspect to prayer, but prayer itself is an individual obligation.

The Zoom minyan or the broadcast of a service places a greater share of the responsibility of a spiritual experience on the individual. It’s easier to zone out and wander away when you’re not in the room with other people, standing, sitting, and hearing voices all around you. Some who are feeling unsatisfied by a Zoom minyan or by watching a broadcast of a service might therefore be wondering, how do I start a Jewish prayer practice? And how might my individual engagement with prayer enhance or support my engagement with a remote minyan?

Here are two paths to begin a Jewish Prayer 101 practice. What we generally refer to as prayer can be broken down into three major categories:

  • Meditation, which can be understood as quieting and preparing your mind for other forms of prayer;
  • Study, which can be understood as God communicating with you through sacred text;
  • Prayer, which can be understood as you communicating your needs, wants, and desires to God.

Although there is a long history of Jewish meditative practices, for most people, the prayer that feels most “Jewish” falls into the latter two categories.

The Shema consists of three paragraphs from the Torah – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. it does not contain petitions addressed to God. Rather, it falls in the category of study. Through recitation of the shema, you will consider the role of love in your life; love of God, but also love of God’s creation – other people, animals, and nature. You will consider broadly the ways you express this love, intellectually, physically, and financially (with your heart, soul, and might). You will consider the consequences to the world around you of living rightly and wrongly (the second paragraph of the shema) and how remind yourself to stay on the right path (the third paragraph). The Shema is a total of only 20 verses, but there is a lot packed into those verses, enough that you might focus on a different lesson each day for several weeks before repeating a lesson.

The internal directions of the Shema are to recite the words twice a day, when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Any Jewish prayers can be recited in Hebrew, English, or any language you understand. Traditional synagogues are committed to Hebrew prayer because that is the language of the Bible and the historic language of our people, not because God doesn’t understand English. Part of your prayer practice could be to spend a little time learning what each Hebrew word means.

A prayer practice takes practice! Give it some time and you might consider keeping a journal of the thoughts that the Shema brings up for you. Let me know how it’s going.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer
  • L’hitpallel – to pray
  • Berakha/Berakhot – blessing/blessings

Divre Harav – September/2020

Over the past five months plus, I have become an expert in participating in prayer online. No matter what the status of COVID-19 cases might be in West Michigan in mid-September, some will not be comfortable in an in-person service. And Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur might be your first experience in a virtual synagogue environment. Here are some things you should know:

First, the service this year will be significantly different than in the past. We have designed it with the pandemic in mind. It will be shorter, to reduce potential exposure time of those sitting in the sanctuary, to acknowledge that wearing face-masks for a prolonged service is uncomfortable, and because we know that it is more difficult to remain engaged while watching a service through a screen.

We have crafted this service carefully, choosing prayers that are engaging, even while sitting at home. But in the end, the service is only as active as you are. The trick is to place yourself in a sacred frame of mind and imagine that you are sitting in your favorite seat in the sanctuary, no matter where you are physically located. Stand when the congregation stands, bow when the congregation bows. respond – out loud – when the congregation responds. Sing along with Cantor Stuart and read the English readings along with me. Don’t stand by and watch — Participate!

We are making High Holiday Mahzorim available for you to take home for each person in your household. Set aside your electronic devices and turn off the notification on the screen that serves as your window into Ahavas Israel. For 90 minutes (or so), follow along and contemplate the themes laid out before you in the liturgy. The season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of renewal. Draw your attention to the areas in your life which would benefit from breathing new life into them. The New Year and the Day of Atonement is about strengthening relationships with family, reconnecting with friends, remembering to be generous, giving, and kind to yourself and others, establishing a prayer routine, and finding God at the center of your consciousness.

Leo Laporte, a tech journalist, describes the consumption of media as a “sit-back experience,” versus the “lean-in experience” of interacting with the content. I encourage you to lean into your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience with an active posture and an active mind. If you take my advice, whether you are sitting in the pews or sitting at home, I virtually guarantee that you will be transformed!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Mashgiah Ruhani – spiritual advisor

Divre Harav – March/2019

Rabbi Simeon says, “Be meticulous in the recitation of the Shema and the Amidah. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a prescribed routine, but let it be a [plea for] mercy and grace before the Blessed Holy One. As it is said, ‘For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers’ (Joel 2:13). Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” Pirke Avot 2:18

There are two main elements of traditional morning (or evening) prayers. The first, the Shema, is not technically prayer. Rather, it is the recitation of three Biblical passages whose function is to first accept God’s authority over our lives; second, to accept the obligation of mitzvot; and third, to use tzitzit as a concrete reminder of mitzvot. To summarize: Love Adonai, your God, with all your heart by listening to God’s commandments and tying tassels to the corners of your garments as a reminder of those mitzvot.

The Amidah is the name for the prayer section of our service, defined as a time when we are speaking directly to God, at least partly with a petitionary agenda. Although our liturgy has a fixed text for the Amidah, Rabbi Simeon’s instructions are to make the words of prayer our own. Put your heart into your prayers, focusing on asking for love, mercy, and grace not just for ourselves, but primarily for others around us. To focus only on our own needs during prayer is not only selfish, but also indicates that we think we have some special deficit that God needs to address. God may take pity on evildoers, but Rabbi Simeon cautions us not to assume that we are one of those evildoers in need of God’s special attention. Thus, most of our prayer should be focused on the needs of others rather than our own.

There has long been tension between fixed liturgy and prayers of the heart, or in Hebrew, between keva and kavanah. Keva describes fixed themes of prayer and can guide us towards non-selfish prayer. Kavanah encourages us to engage in a conversation with God in which we can share our particular burdens and joys. Individual, spontaneous prayer reflects the highs and lows of our spirit in the moment; fixed prayer reflects ongoing self-reflection and the highest ideals and aspirations of our relationship with God’s world.

Finally, the word tefillah connotes some degree of self-reflection. When we prayer, we not only offer petitions for our and the world’s needs, but we also reflect on how well we have done living up to our potential, living fully as one created in the image of God.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer, self-reflection
  • keva – fixed liturgy
  • kavanah – focused direction of thought and prayer