The Door to Amazement: Why We Bless

NewMonarchWeb

…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.”  That question leads us to the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?

And what about those for whom the idea of God is more abstract, who find it rather odd to talk to an Idea? Why bother with blessings?

My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own.  When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.

Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. That pause may only be a fraction of a second, it may even become a reflex, but it is a moment of sacred intention breaking in upon the mundane. This week, as I hurry about my work, those little pauses remind me that every mitzvah gives me an opportunity to bring the sacred into the world, even when I have to do them rapidly, even when I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even a moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that, too!)

It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about our days!

The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!

The Patience of a Little Dog

wpid-imag0028_1.jpg

When Linda is away, Princess often waits by the front door. She stares at the frosted glass, hoping for a shadow. Dogs are wonderfully patient. Princess will go do other things for a while, but she always returns, hoping.

This is one of my mental images of prayer. We sit by the frosted glass, hoping for a glimpse of the Infinite One. Maybe this morning, maybe not. But as Princess would tell us if she could, it’s worth the wait.

Transformation

The news today has been depressing: Baltimore. Iran. Chernobyl. Nepal. Drought. Most of these stories involve human failure to listen, to think, to care, or to act. Some of them are also natural disasters, infinitely complicated by human failures. It’s so, so sad.

So it lifted my heart today to see something new in my garden: a brand-new monarch butterfly drying out his wings. This creature just emerged from his chrysalis and was taking advantage of the noontime sun, getting his wings ready for flight:

NewMonarchWeb

He is sitting on a grape leaf, the leaf under which his chrysalis hung for the last little while:

Chrysalis

“Well, how nice, rabbi,” some of you may be thinking. “But what does a butterfly have to do with all the grief in the world today? How can people change enough to make any difference at all?”

Change is hard. Ask the butterfly – he had to struggle to get out of that jade box! For him, transformation was inevitable: nature had hard-wired it into his system. For human beings, change is harder. We are stubborn, and sure of our own ideas.

In Jewish tradition, this is where prayer comes into the picture. Human beings rarely change on their own in Torah: they change when they come into contact with the Divine, with that which is greater than themselves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it so much better than I ever will, so I will finish with a quote from the introduction to his Siddur:

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

That’s why I pray, today and every day, for a world in which justice is available to every person, a world in which wisdom and goodness win out over foolishness and meanness. I pray for change, beginning with me.

The Magic of the Minyan

minyan

I started my day with the Tuesday Morning Minyan, and at sundown, I will join a shiva minyan at the home of a bereaved gentleman in our congregation. In the morning we had learning, and prayers, and then coffee with the guys (this week they were all guys, except me.) In the evening, we’ll have some quiet visiting, and prayers, and then some nosh and more quiet visiting.

“Minyan” literally means “a quorum for Jewish prayer, or 10,” but beneath the surface, it means so much more:

– a group that comes together daily or regularly to pray and share the connections of community

– a group that comes together to comfort the mourners among us

– a group that can represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, standing before God in prayer

– a group of Jewish adults: the magic about the age of 13 for bar mitzvah is that that’s the age at which one counts for the minyan

– a group of Jewish adults: when women began to “count for a minyan,” it was a major step forward for liberal Jewish women

– Ten: the minimum number to say certain important prayers, such as Kaddish and the Barechu blessings

– Ten: the number needed for certain important activities, like reading Torah.

Why ten? The traditional answer is that that is the number of the “spies” who persuaded the Israelites that the Land was too scary to enter in Numbers 13-14. God refers to them as eda’ah hara’ah hazot – “this bad congregation.” (Num. 14:27) Their number was sufficient to drown out the good report of Caleb and Joshua; ultimately their voices spoke for the whole people.

I like to think of it in a more positive way: ten is the number of toes on my feet. A person who loses a toe can still walk, but balance will be impaired and speed will be impaired. Even the little toe is critical for the complex architecture of our feet. In the same way, each member is critical to the functioning of the minyan, from the 13 year old awash in hormones to the 93 year old who cannot see the prayer book anymore. Each has a part to play, even though it may be mysterious to us.

I knew everyone at the minyan this morning; odds are, I won’t know many people at the minyan tonight. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the presence of every person in the room. What matters, for the Jewish people, is that we show up.

Psalm For a Very Dark Night

"another sleepless night" by elias quezada, some rights reserved

Today was an awful news day, with terrible events that left families in mourning.

Jewish tradition has given us the book of Psalms, ancient prayers that address every imaginable human emotion.

Sometimes people are put off by the God-language, which may not align with their beliefs about God. However, if we focus on the Psalms as expressions of human experience, they can offer the comfort that we are never truly alone with our feelings. Whatever I feel, many others have had that hurt or that joy before me.

Here is Psalm 77.  The speaker is in agony and sleepless, and he describes it in terms that are still quite fresh.  He used to feel secure, but now he does not. On a day like today this Psalm speaks to me:

To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
    ¹ I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that God may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Eternal;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without rest;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah!

You keep my eyelids from closing;
    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
    and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Eternal spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever?
    Are God’s promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has God in anger shut down compassion?” Selah!
10 And I say, “It is my grief
    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Eternal;
    I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah!

16 When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Is there a psalm or a prayer that speaks to you during very difficult times? Why that particular one?

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.