Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.
My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:
I’m very, very tired after a wonderful weekend of wedding festivities. Still I had a thought today that I wanted to share on this blog.
We prayed all weekend, from Friday night services, to Saturday morning services, to Havdalah Saturday evening. We used the Reconstructionist prayer book for services. Three of the officiating rabbis were Reform rabbis and one was Conservative. I am not sure where the cantor went to school, but her voice was from heaven.
The out-of-town guests were of all backgrounds, and from all over the world: most were Jewish, but not all. Some were American secular, some Reform, some from Conservative and Orthodox homes. A few were clearly very traditional, walking to synagogue, and dressing for modesty, heads covered. The Israelis were all secular, but of course, Hebrew was no bar for them, but some of the prayers were in English, too.
Most of us hadn’t met except by hearing about each other from the couple. The lovely thing about having Shabbat together and davening our way through it was that the individuals who came together had, by the time of the chuppah, become a kahal. We had played Jewish Geography, played peekaboo with the cantor’s adorable baby, and shared our “how I met David & Yuval” stories. The Israelis tried out their English, the Americans tried out their Hebrew. But more than that, we and the regular congregation had prayed our way through Shabbat.
I doubt there was anyone in any of the services who found them 100% familiar, because the siddur (Prayer Book) was somewhat unfamiliar to the rabbis and the rabbis were completely unfamiliar to the congregation. We all do things differently. I knew the prayers, but some of the tunes were new to me, and everyone else was unfamiliar with some aspect of the services. But we stumbled together, we let the people who were leading carry us, and we became a congregation. By the time we got to the wedding itself, we were One.
I know that Jewish communal prayer is a challenge for some of my readers. And yes, there are things one has to learn, but the fantasy of being a “smooth davener” can actually get in the way of your real life prayer experience. None of us so-called experts are all that expert except in our familiar minyanim, our home congregational praying-groups. Put us with a diverse new bunch of Jews and it gets messy fast. That’s OK, if we can resist the urge to squabble about the “right way” to do things and simply let it go and pray together.
The biggest barrier for me in that situation is my ego. If I need to look “expert” then I’m going to be uncomfortable. I learned all my Hebrew as an adult, and when some words are new, I stumble. I don’t know every tune that was ever invented, either. Back when I clung to the fantasy that someday I’d be a smooth davener, services could be miserable. I was unsure of the pages, unsure of the tunes, unsure of the words, and absolutely sure that I looked like a fool.
This weekend, there were moments when I was unsure of the page, unsure of the tune, stumbling over the words, and it was all OK. After twenty years of davening as a Jew and eight as a rabbi, I know that that’s going to happen with an unfamiliar siddur and a minyan that’s new to me. When those moments came, I shut my eyes, relaxed my body, and felt the prayers around me lift me, like a fresh breeze under my wings. And it was all good.
Often we walk into services, look for a seat, settle in, chat with friends, and wait for the service to begin. The rabbi or cantor says, “Shabbat shalom!” once, then again, louder, and the group replies, “Shabbat shalom!” Half of us are still mentally looking for a parking spot, and the rest are not sure where we are. A skillful service leader will settle us in with a hymn, but too often we’re looking to them for the “warmup” we need to give ourselves.
What’s the spiritual equivalent of stretching and a little cardio?
The classical answer is to pray that we will be ready to pray. And certainly, for some people that’s the way to begin. It’s like saying “hello” to God, before the service starts.
Others quiet their minds. They sit silently and breathe. They calm themselves from the road or the argument with the kids.
Others check in with friends. I knew one old gentleman who would give a little wave to people across the congregation as he saw them come in. For him, being in the service was about being with other Jews, in Jewish space, and greeting friends was a way to “warm up” to pray.
I like to get to services a bit early and sit for a while. I like to be in the physical space as people arrive. It takes time for all of me to truly arrive in the room. If it’s morning, putting on my tallit [prayer shawl] is a sign to my body that it is time to pray.
For a very restless person, a brisk walk might be a good way to start, something to consume the wiggles for a while.
How do you prepare to pray? What activity might put you in the perfect mindset for prayer?
Have you ever davened [prayed] with a weekday minyan?
Jewish prayer is intended to be a three-times-daily every day affair. While I usually say my prayers at home by myself, early on Tuesday mornings there’s a minyan that meets at the congregation where I am a member. As with many such minyanim, it’s a group of mostly-older, mostly-retired, mostly-men, with a sprinkling of working folks and women.
We are accustomed to one another. The songs are always the same. If anything is sung in tune, it’s strictly by accident. The Hebrew is rapid, because when we began, there was no parking lot and the meter readers would descend and ticket us if we ran long. Now it’s rapid because some folks need to get to work, and the retired folks need to get to coffee and discussion, which convenes immediately after the service, down the street at Posh Bagel.
It’s no-frills prayer. There are few variations in the service from week to week. You’d think it would be boring, but it’s not. There is the sweet comfort of familiar faces and familiar voices. There is friendship. Everyone is invited to coffee after, and they arrange it so that no one with a tight budget is embarrassed.
If you ever have access to a morning minyan, try it out. Give it a few tries. They may or may not be friendly at first, but my experience of such minyanim has been good. If you don’t know how to speed-daven, just “Amen” at the right places and it will be OK. You’ll pick it up – that’s how most people learn.
I left the minyan this morning for a meeting, carrying the warmth in my heart.
In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-alot’kha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16) we have a very famous story. The Israelites are camped at a place called Hazeroth. Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister of Moses, are talking to one another about Moses. First a little gossip: “He married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman!” and then, “God has spoken through each of us, too!” – with the implication that they resent Moses’ high position as leader of the Israelites. The irony of this is that Aaron and Miriam are quite famous in their own right. Aaron is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Miriam is beloved by the Israelites; from other stories in the Torah, we know that the Israelites loved her. A miraculous spring rose wherever she pitched her tent, providing the whole community with water. And yet the two of them are kvetching that Moses gets too much attention! God hears them, and summons the three siblings to the door of the Tent of Meeting. God says to Aaron and Miriam, in front of Moses, “Lookit, you two: I talk to prophets like you in visions, but when I talk with Moses, it’s mouth to mouth! How dare you speak against Moses!” Then God departs in a huff, the cloud rising from above the Tent. When the cloud goes, the three of them are horrified: Miriam’s skin has turned sickly white, and she is covered with flakes. It is the terrible condition tzara’at, which is sometimes (mis)translated as “leprosy.” It is not the same as the illness Hansen’s Disease, also called leprosy. The laws for tzara’at are commanded in Leviticus 13-14, and the essence of them is that a person with the disease cannot stay in the camp. Consider for a moment what that means: Miriam has to leave the Israelite camp. She has to pitch her tent outside the camp, without the protection of the warriors. Wild animals and marauders could get her. Her miraculous spring will not be available to the thirsty Israelites, either. This is a disaster. Aaron, whose skin is unaffected, goes into a frenzy of guilt. “Moses! Don’t hold our sin against us! Please pray for her to be healed!” By asking Moses to pray, he demonstrates that he heard and understood what God said: Moses is closer to God than he. Aaron admits that he can’t do anything for Miriam, but that Moses might be able to help. And Moses does indeed pray for his sister. His prayer is short and direct: “Please, God, please heal her!” And God relents, saying that she will have to suffer seven days of exile outside the camp, and then her skin will clear and she can return inside the camp. The whole camp waits for her, and then they move on. This is an interesting story on many levels. On one of the simplest, it is an illustration of how seriously our tradition takes the sin of talking about another person, even if what is said is true. Aaron and Miriam were envious of their brother – but notice, the sin isn’t their envy, it’s the talk that gets them in trouble. Emotions are natural parts of the human experience. It’s what we do with and about them that matters. Another thing that always strikes me about this story is that even though Moses talks with God “mouth to mouth” (what a curious phrase!) Moses’ prayer gets a rather reluctant response from God. He says, “Please, God, please heal her!” but the illness will still have to run its course. We learn from this that it is OK to pray for sick people, but that it is unrealistic to expect miracles. One thing that people sometimes take away from this story is that illness is a punishment for sin. It’s important to realize that tzara’at is not leprosy, and is in fact not an illness as we understand illness today. If you read Leviticus 13-14 carefully, you can see that it doesn’t behave like a sickness. It is more an outward manifestation of the condition of the soul; only a priest can diagnose it, for one thing. For another, houses and clothing can get it. I read the passages about houses and clothing in Leviticus as a warning to us NOT to mistake it for leprosy or any other regular human illness. Have you ever prayed for someone else to be healed? What is “healing”?
Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.
The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)
Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.
Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:
“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”
It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.
Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.
Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.
I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.
Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:
I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:
This text, from Numbers 6:24-26, is known as the Birkat Kohanim, or priestly blessing. It is one of the most familiar passages of Torah to a synagogue-going Jew. In the synagogue service, traditionally it is pronounced by the adult male kohanim (descendants of Aaron) daily in Israel and on certain days of the year in the Diaspora. (For a video of kohanim giving the blessing at the Western Wall, click this link.)
The priestly blessing is also used for blessings on other occasions. Parents may say it over children on Shabbat evenings, and a chazzan (cantor) or rabbi in the Reform movement may say it on a solemn occasion for blessing, such as a baby naming, a conversion, or a birthday.
It is associated with a hand gesture that is often pictured on the grave markers of kohanim (see photo below).
This text is the content of the oldest Biblical inscription currently known, the Ketef Hinnom inscription, found in 1979 near the Old City of Jerusalem. The words were inscribed in paleo-Hebrew on thin silver strips and rolled into an amulet to be worn on a string around the neck. They are estimated to be from the early 6th century BCE (1st Temple period) based upon analysis of the script.