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

Matisyahu Dovens at the Intersection in Grand Rapids

Matisyahu comes out on stage complete with the large black velvet kippah (thank God, not advertising Mashiah – he’s broken ties with Chabad), tzitzit hanging out, and peyot swinging.  The crowd – 1,500 or so, whatever the Intersection in downtown Grand Rapids holds – goes wild.  I can’t figure out why this group of Grand Rapidians is so excited.  He begins singing.  The first song is about a princess yearning to return to the King.  I wonder how many of his fans have any idea that he is talking about the soul yearning to be near God, and how many are just attracted by the energy, the volume, his voice.  He’s not just singing, something that the crowd intuitive knows, even though they might not be able to name what he is doing – dovening.  He’s praying.  He’s leading the crowd in prayer.  His body is swaying back and forth.  He continues with a song about the death of the body – created of earth, destined to return to the earth.

Later on, both the music and his dancing become more conventional, less like something you’d see in a synagogue.  But near the end of the evening, after a wild dance, sweat visibly dripping off his peyot, his kippah falls off.  He grabs a towel, and puts it over his head and shoulders, like a tallit.  We’re now back to the dovening.  His mood changes.  He hums a melody – “My help comes from Adonai, maker of heavens and earth.”  I may be one of a small handful in the room who understands the Hebrew words that go with that melody.

He begins dovening again, singing about Jerusalem, praying for the messianic era.  It is clear to me, in this context, that his prayer reflects not just a Jewish messianism, but the hope that his music will unite Jews, Christians, non-Theists, all those represented by the bodies in the room that evening, in worship of God together, creating a beautiful messianic moment.  May we see the day.

Worshipping God — in Silence or with Words and Music?

I’ve been on Sabbatical for the past couple of months.  One of my projects has been to study the art of preaching.  I’ve been meeting with various pastors, and spending an unusual amount of time visiting church services to hear the sermon.  This post, however, is not about the sermons, but rather about the prayer experience surrounding the sermon.

This past Sunday I visited Ridge Point Community Church in the Holland area (not affiliated with any particular denomination); the week before I had visited Plymouth Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids.

The Pastor of Plymouth UCC, Doug Van Doren, used a great deal of silence during the service.  At the end of each of his prayers, at the end of his sermon, at various points and at the end of the service, he would pause and without words, invite silent reflection.

The service at Ridge Point was carefully choreographed to last exactly one hour.  The first 1/2 hour was non-stop music.  One song led directly into another, backed up by a full and rather loud band.  The volume might not have been rock concert, but the atmosphere was.  The pastor, Jim Liske, even said at one point that he felt like he should be in the back row holding up a lighter!  The music led directly and without pause to the teaching in the second 1/2 hour.  There was not a moment of silence.

Objectively, there are no criteria to prefer one experience over the other.  A service that leaves room in between the words and songs allows the worshipper to explore his or her own thoughts, feelings, reactions, motivations, needs, and desires — and share all of this with God in the form of personal prayer.  A service composed of a series of carefully chosen songs focused on a particular theme followed by a well-taught message sends people away from the worship experience  holding onto a message, which potentially will transform the way they live their lives.

Ultimately, we choose a Synagogue or Temple or minyan or denomination or other place of worship based on how we best find meaning and connection with the Divine.  Personally, I find silence critically important within a service.  I hate congregational readings, responsive or otherwise.  I like the self-directedness of a traditional Jewish service.  Too many words and too much music crowd out my own thoughts and prayers.  Occasionally, though, I visit congregations which have more structured liturgy and use more music and less silence and I have learned how to find the beauty and the Divine Presence.  It’s always nice, though, to go back home to my own congregation!