Thanksgiving, Jewish Style

Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal Ruler, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

A Jewish day properly begins with gratitude.

Some say Modeh Ani* even before they set a foot on the floor in the morning. Some say it in the synagogue. And even for those who do not say it, it waits in the prayer book.

What is it that we can be grateful for, before standing up, before washing, before the first cup of coffee? We are grateful simply to be alive. “Restored my soul within me” refers to the ancient Jewish belief that sleep is 1/60th of death. We begin the day reminding ourselves that life itself is a gift.

This week Jews in the United States observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There’s a particular joy in sharing a holiday with our non-Jewish neighbors: there’s no need to ask for a special day off and no need to explain it to children as someone else’s holiday.

And yet: Let’s remember that in our tradition, every day is thanksgiving day. The Torah teaches us that life itself  is a precious gift: fragile, transient, infinitely precious. Use it well.


*”Modeh” is the masculine form, “modah”the feminine.

Lost in the Service?

At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one”

Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015

This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL this past Shabbat. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.

The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.

I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.

Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:

  1. No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
  2. The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
  3. It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
  5. No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
  6. You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
  7. You have a right to be there, period.

So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!

Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

The Frustrating Language of Prayer

Many of my students find the language of Jewish prayer frustrating. I’m not talking about Hebrew; I’m referring to the language that seems addressed to the archetypal Old Man in the Sky. That language doesn’t match up with their own experience of the sky, of human beings, or of God.

Take for example the wording of the blessing for creation in the evening service:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe,
who by His word brings on evenings,
by His wisdom opens the gates of heaven,
with understanding makes time change
and the seasons rotate, and by His will
orders the stars in their constellations in the sky.
– from The Koren Siddur, 2009

I chose this translation because it is a very literal translation of the Hebrew from a leading Orthodox scholar. Some translations in liberal siddurim have been softened a bit with inclusive language, but for my purposes here I want the full impact of the traditional language.

What is a modern, scientifically minded Jew to do with this? There are many options employed by such Jews in dealing with the language of the prayer.

TRADITION I – “This is the ancient prayer. It was good enough for my grandparents. I say these words because my ancestors said them, and I have been saying these prayers all my life. I find the images of God in these prayers suitable and comforting. These prayers are great poetry; please don’t take them away from me!”

TRADITION II – “This is the ancient prayer. I may find it archaic, but my people have been praying in these exact words for many centuries. I don’t take the images literally; I say the words because my ancestors said them. There is holiness and beauty in the continuity of saying them and teaching them to another generation. We can update a few things that are theologically problematic, perhaps, but in the main, I don’t want big changes.”

TIME FOR REVISION – “This may be the ancient prayer, but my Judaism is alive and living things grow and change. I want a siddur that reflects my own experience of God.” This person might want to seek out a congregation that uses the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah or the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah. Neither is perfect, but both are striking attempts to use inclusive language and to offer interpretive versions of prayers that are more appropriate in an age of science.

Mishkan Tefilah offers several alternative readings for the Ma’ariv prayer above. I am partial to a reading in one of the footnotes:

To be “religious” might mean to have an intuitive feeling of the unity of the cosmos…. Oneness is grounded in scientific reality: we are made of the same stuff as all of creation. The deepest marvel is the unity in diversity. – Daniel Matt (Mishkan Tefilah, p 7)

BEYOND METAPHOR – Sometimes the problem isn’t gendered language, it’s all of the metaphor-laden language about a God who has “hands” and “opens gates” and is a person not all that different from any human being. One of the most famous and successful attempts to write a siddur that gets beyond personalized language is Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, which is truly a new vision of Jewish prayer. I am not aware of any congregation that uses it regularly, but if you find traditional Jewish prayer language terminally off-putting, you may want to check it out.

STUDY AND REVISE – Sometimes no version of the prayer I can find works for me. Then I study the prayer, and I struggle with it. I try to understand the original intent of the prayer and my specific issue with it. Then I work on a new interpretation of the prayer. Asher Yatzar is one example of a prayer I’ve reworked. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive approach, and if you choose it, you will need access to a commentary on the prayer to study it. Talk to your rabbi and explain that a particular prayer is troubling you, and that you’d like to study it with them.

Jewish prayers are not easy. None of us are born knowing how to pray Jewishly, and whenever we begin learning, we are never “finished.” What seems fine at one stage of life may bug the daylights out of us at another stage. However, where there is a will, there is a way to pray.

Have you ever felt that you simply could not say a particular prayer? Which prayer, and why? How did you resolve the issue?

My Daily Reminder: Pick a Mitzvah

One of my favorite moments in the daily service comes near the beginning of the morning blessings:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

I love this because it is a checklist of those things which are a good use of my time and energy, but which might slip by me otherwise.

To honor father and mother – The word we usually translate as “honor” is Ka-BAYD – literally, to give weight. It doesn’t mean “obey” – rather, it means to make sure that one’s parents do not suffer from deprivation and humiliation.

To perform acts of love and kindness – Covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it? Notice that those acts are not limited to one’s family, or friends, or worthy people, or other Jews. Even when we must say “no” to someone, we must do so kindly.

To attend the house of study – Most of us do not have the luxury of full time Torah study. Even if we cannot study “morning and evening” we can carve out a moment every day for a bit of learning. There are many online resources that offer such opportunities, like 10 Minutes of Talmud and My Jewish Learning.

To receive guests – This can be done in the abstract, by supporting organizations, but it can also be done on a personal level: invite people over! Our Jewish homes are sacred space. We can share that holiness by welcoming others into them for a cup of tea or a meal.

To visit the sick – “Visiting” can take many forms. A quick visit in person can be very comforting to a sick person. But we can also “visit” via a phone call, an email, or a get-well card.

To rejoice with the bride – The rabbis tell us that even if a bride is homely, the white lie to tell her that she looks great is part of our obligation to rejoice at weddings. As a modern liberal Jew, I expand this obligation to every wedding couple: on this day, they are beautiful and I am happy for them.

To accompany the dead – Most translations say “to comfort the mourner” but that is actually a separate obligation. This one has to do with making sure that the body of the dead person makes it safely into the earth – attending funerals, and giving tzedakah so that indigent people can be buried with dignity. It also reminds us to comfort mourners, by showing up for funerals, attending shiva, and by speaking to them in ways that are actually comforting.

To pray with intention – For me, this means praying a short form of the daily service. For others it might mean a Jewish meditation practice, or the Bedtime Shema, or saying blessings regularly. For others, it might mean attending daily minyan at a local synagogue. But for all of us it means cultivating an awareness of the Holy, however we understand it.

To bring peace between a person and his fellow – It’s so easy to say, and so hard to do. It means paying attention, watching for opportunities to make peace and seizing those opportunities when they appear. It also means supporting peacemakers on the larger stage: voting for politicians who value peace over power and who know how to make a viable compromise.

The study of Torah is the greatest of them all, because it leads to them all – Learning Torah and thinking about it in personal terms will change us. We will recognize opportunities for peace, we will feel comfortable at a funeral, we will see the openings for acts of love and kindness. Studying Torah will provide us with role models: Abraham, our model for hospitality and Isaac, a model for prayer and Rebekah, who was kind to people and even to animals.

There’s a line in the Reform prayer book:

Those who study Torah are the guardians of civilization.

Honestly, the first time I read this in the service, it made me smile. I thought about my Torah study group, munching their bagels and arguing about each line in the parashah. It was pretty funny to think of them as “guardians of civilization.” Then I thought about the individuals. One guy was so passionate about feeding the hungry that he founded a Thanksgiving food drive that gathers thousands of pounds of food every year for the food bank. Another woman was always ready with homemade soup in her freezer for someone sick. Another woman was in politics, sincerely interested in making our city better. A retired mathematician in the group has become an expert on taharah, ritual washing of the dead, co-authoring a book that teaches about that mitzvah. Two of us left to become rabbis. And so on. That one Torah study group had gone on for over 25 years, and many of the people in it have been transformed by Torah, choosing work or volunteer activities that do indeed make our city a more civilized place in which to live.

I wish I could say that I live up to every item on this list. The truth is, no one does all of these things every day. Still it reminds me of the possibilities for holiness that lurk in my schedule, and it challenges me to fill my days with goodness. The rewards are both in this life and in the way I will someday be remembered: a world made better.

Not a small thing.

The Secret of Showing Up

One of my favorite lines, too, Rabbi Adar! What an eloquent argument this post is for the discipline of regular worship. I compare it to a good bye kiss in the morning. Sometimes it is just perfunctory, but sometimes insets of a WOW spark. But if we didn’t do it every morning, we would not be positioned for the WOW! Thank you! – A comment on Turn it Again, Ben! by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Fuchs’ comment ties together my two previous posts: the one cited above and the previous one, Jewish Spirituality.

The performance of mitzvot [commandments] is of its nature routine. I say a blessing, I get out of bed, I say a blessing, I wash my hands, I say a blessing, I eat a muffin, I say a blessing, I take my meds. Most of it happens “on automatic” and is about as exciting as brushing my teeth (for which I do not yet know a blessing.) This week I’m going to host students for Shabbat dinner, so I’ve also got all of those preparations (clear the dining room/study table, check my lists, cook) and they, too, have a routine feel to them.

This routine of mitzvot sets up opportunities for what Rabbi Fuchs calls “the WOW!” Most days saying my prayers is a routine. Last Shabbat, one of those routine prayers reduced me to tears of amazement. I didn’t know when I left home for services that I was going to have that experience. Actually, I wasn’t feeling all that great and might have stayed home, except that I had committed to chant the first aliyah of the Torah portion.

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Jewish spiritual activity definitely works that way, whether we’re talking about prayer or some other mitzvot. On any given day, I’m probably not going to get any kind of spiritual insight or “high” from giving tzedakah or saying blessings. There are many mitzvot I may do for my entire life and never have an experience that anyone would call spiritual.

However, if I want to have a sense of meaning in my life, every mitzvah that I observe is a step in that direction. This past week my prayer practice gifted me with an insight: every breath is precious. That was worth all the mere “showing up” that got me to that place. Even without that insight, every mitzvah I observe is like a single strand in a spider’s web that forms a small essential part of the greater whole. Those mitzvot performed with the right intention will shape me into a better person living a better life than I would otherwise live.

This Shabbat I expect to be very, very tired but to be filled with a warm feeling from feeding my students and performing the mitzvah of hospitality. Or maybe I’ll just be very tired. That’s OK. I’ll show up, and they’ll show up, and that will be enough.

Turn It Again, Ben!

Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” – Avot 5:22

He may have one of the strangest names in Jewish history*, but Ben Bag Bag’s famous line is a favorite of mine. The “it” he refers to is the Torah. Read it over and over, he suggests, because there is always something new to find there.

I was reminded anew of the wisdom of this line this past Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, I went to the emergency room with severe difficulty breathing, gasping and gasping like a fish out of water. Tests revealed that my breathing was impeded by a number of blood clots in my lungs. Thanks to the skill of the doctors and nurses, I am breathing better now and feeling better every day.

Sitting in the service this week, I noticed a new way to understand a favorite prayer. In the context of prayers, the word neshamah (neh-sha-MAH) is usually translated “soul.” However, it may equally correctly be translated as “breath.” Suddenly the familiar prayer was transformed before my eyes:

My God, the breath You have given me is pure.
You created it, You shaped it, You breathed it into me,
You protect it within me.
For as long as this breath is within me,
I offer thanks to You,
Adonai, My God, God of my ancestors,
Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls.
Praised are You, Adonai,
In whose hand is every living breath and the breath of humankind.

I have no guess as to how many thousands of times I have murmured that prayer, but it never before occurred to me that I was giving thanks for breath.

No matter how many times I say a prayer or read a line of Torah, I do not know when a new experience in my life will cause the words to light up with new meaning. Until last month, I did not fully appreciate the value of breath. I thought that “soul” was a more meaningful translation of neshamah.

Silly me.


*Ben Bag Bag’s full name was likely Yochanan ben Bag Bag, and one tradition teaches that his name is an acronym for “ben ger” and “bat ger” suggesting that his parents were converts to Judaism. Another tradition teaches that he was himself a proselyte, the cheeky fellow who asked Hillel to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot!

Update on the Missing Rabbi

You are probably wondering, “Did she fall into a hole? Did something bad happen? Where is that pesky rabbi, anyhow?”

I’ve been quiet, and I can’t promise I will be as regular as I like to be for a while yet. At first I was in the hospital, dealing with a health problem. Now I am home, dealing with the solution to the health problem. I much prefer the latter, which mostly falls under the heading of Adjusting to Side Effects of Medication. I will not supply more details because even though I’m a blogger, I do have a few boundaries. Anything I said would be TMI, trust me.

A lot has gone through my head. I finally returned to services on Saturday morning, and it felt so good that I intended to go back for Yizkor and the many lovely services of Shimini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, but the body didn’t permit. I needed to stay home. I’m still healing.

I am awed by the number of people who tell me they are praying for me, awed and grateful. Thank you if you’ve been praying, and if you intended to and didn’t that is ok (I think those prayers “count” too.) I feel surrounded by a cloud of Good Intention. It makes the rest of it much easier.

I wish you all a Shavua Tov, a good week. I’ll post again soon.