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.

A Vidui for Martin Luther King Day

"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ShofarSound.JPG#mediaviewer/File:ShofarSound.JPG">ShofarSound</a>" by <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathunder" title="User:Jonathunder">Jonathunder</a> - <span class="int-own-work">Own work</span>. Licensed under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.
The sound of the Shofar traditionally calls Jews to repentance.

A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

 

[Image is licensed under Creative Commons copyright]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Song in Prayer

Singing is not just for the choir!
Sing to the Eternal a new song! – Ps. 98:1

“I get more out of the service when I sing.”

The person who said that to me this past Shabbat evening was a woman I’ve known for a long time. She used to sit quietly during services, listening to the music but never participating except by tapping her toe or her fingertips. I noticed that she was singing, and asked her about it.

“I just get more out of it if I sing,” she said, “I can’t explain it.”

That’s my experience, too: I feel the service more deeply and I lose myself in it if I sing along. A lot of people don’t sing because they are insecure about their voices, and that’s a shame. Jewish prayer is a whole-body, whole-person experience, and the person who doesn’t sing misses out on a part of it. People don’t sing for a lot of reasons:

“I have a terrible singing voice” – The quality of your singing voice is not important. It might have been important in high school glee club, but it isn’t an issue for congregational singing. If you are really worried about it, sing softly, but sing.

“I don’t know the tunes” – The way most people learn the tunes is by singing along. Again, sing softly if you are unsure, but if you can sing with the car radio, you can sing along with “Adon Olam,” even if the tune is new to you.

“I don’t know the words.” – So don’t use the words! Sing “lai-lai-lai” or “dai-dai-dai” or whatever works for you. Again, if you sing along, you’ll learn the words faster.  If you are self-conscious, sing softly.

“I’d rather listen to others sing.” – OK, sometimes when that’s what I need from the service, I just listen, too. But if that’s all I ever did, it would be like showing up to potluck suppers empty-handed time after time. Congregational singing is part of the service precisely because it lifts the spirit in a way that nothing else can; it is something we do for ourselves and for one another.

If you are worried about the etiquette of congregational singing, here are some tips:

  1. Do sing, but don’t bellow. A nice rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear other people around you sing, too.
  2. If you are unsure of words or tune, sing a bit more softly.
  3. Sing with, not against the congregation. If you learned the tune a different way, that’s interesting but do not try to impose your will on others.
  4. Sing with the congregation. If the cantor or soloist is singing alone, don’t chime in; it will look like you are showing off.

When human beings sing in a group, we join ourselves together at a deep level. We take breaths together, we move together, we almost become a new, larger being. Music is a mysterious and wonderful part of liturgy; it reaches parts of the human psyche that are otherwise difficult to touch. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish worship:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. – Exodus 15:1

Music transcends time; it is old and new. It stirs memory and emotion and it moves hearts.  Do you sing in the service? Why or why not?

 

 

Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur

Mishkan T'filah
Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur

A siddur (seh-DOOR or SID-der) is a Jewish prayer book. It is an anthology of prayers, readings, and poetry, some of which date to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The word siddur means “order.” It is just that: it gives the proper order for the service. The plural is siddurim.

There have been many different siddurim since medieval times because each siddur reflects the custom of a particular group of Jews. There are some major, well-known siddurim with wide distribution, such as Mishkan T’filah (Reform), Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative), Kol HaNeshamah (Reconstructionist), Siddur HaShalem and Siddur Rinat Yisrael (Orthodox.)

Some smaller communities produce their own siddurim. For instance, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco has published its prayer book, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav.

What prayer book is best for you? The one your community uses. While the basic order of service is the same in every siddur, small differences in wording, pagination, and arrangement can be extremely frustrating. Unless you want to have a copy for home study and prayer, there is no need to buy a prayer book: most synagogues provide them for worshippers. However, if you want to take it home or put marks in it, buy your own!

Liturgist and Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski once described the siddur as “the journal of the Jewish People.” Torah is God’s gift to Israel, but the siddur is in the words of our ancestors, our scholars, and our poets.

There’s an App for Blessings!

blessingsA reader asked about blessings: how can one learn them, learn which is for which, and so on?

The easiest way to learn that I know is an “app” from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (yes, I’m a member.) It’s called “Daily Blessings.” It includes the traditional blessings, plus some innovative ones that the Reform rabbis found useful.

It sorts them by menus, so that you can use the app to figure out which blessing is appropriate. It gives you the Hebrew, the English, and a transliteration of the Hebrew, so that you can say the blessing in either language. If you want to hear the Hebrew, you can play the blessing, voiced by an Israeli rabbi. It’s available through both GooglePlay (Android), iTunes, and NookApps.

At $1.99, it’s a deal.

Go and learn!

 

Getting Ready to Pray

"Morning Prayer" by Michelle W. Some rights reserved.
“Morning Prayer” by Michelle W. Some rights reserved.

How do you get ready to pray?

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?