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

Psalm 134

“Who stand nightly in the house of Adonai …” (134:1)

For those who want to build a strong spiritual core, there is no substitute for doing the hard work of prayer, study, and meditation, along with taking care of their physical self with good nutrition and exercise. This is a daily regimen of spirit-building, training themselves to be aware of their place in the world as beings created in the image of God. Goodness and connectedness do not come naturally, but only over time do they develop an innate sense of what is right and true.

Psalm 110

“He raises his head.” (110:7)

The Psalmist is speaking of a person whose posture suggests that he is confident that he is under the protection of God, a hero, secure in his ability to succeed. This is in contrast to the person who advises “Keep your head down” or “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” who comes from the opposite perspective, suggesting that we keep a low profile and not call attention to ourselves.

During the most important Jewish prayers, we stand upright in an attentive, dignified posture. When addressing the Blessed Holy One, we want to present ourselves well. We do well to approach others with the same confident posture.