There’s an App for Blessings!

July 20, 2014

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

June 14, 2014
"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?

 

 


“Please God, Please Heal Her!”

June 6, 2014
Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

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”?

Image: “Pleading Rocks” by Patrick Tanguay, Some Rights Reserved.


Prayer for the Opening of Baseball Season

March 1, 2014
Dodger Stadium, Opening Day 5773

Dodger Stadium, Opening Day 5773

The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Tractate Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir (The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer that follow is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is a pseudapigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, most likely a Tigers fan.

There is disagreement as to whether this prayer should be said at the opening of Spring Training or on Opening Day. Consult a rabbi or your home team office for the minhag hamakom (local custom) upon this matter.*

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, as well as a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that would satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

Even as one cannot achieve a five run home run, let our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Even as no one can achieve a quadruple play, let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Steve Devol

*To my “Beginner” readers – the words in italics at the top of this entry are a little rabbinical joke. Don’t worry about what it means; it’s a bit of Adar silliness.


A Lesson from Daylight Savings

November 3, 2013

Daylight savings time annoys me. It gives me jet lag without the pleasure of travel. However I have to admit that I learned some thing from it this year.

I woke before my alarm, gently, easily, perfectly rested. Then I saw the sunlight pouring in and jerked fully awake, horrified that I had slept through my alarm and would be late to teach my Sunday morning Intro class. I calmed only when I saw the clock: yes, it was only 6:30.

“Fall back an hour” gave me the additional hour of sleep that I usually deny myself. I felt GREAT.

We make tremendous fuss in our culture about “fitness” which is almost always code for “weight.” But we often abuse our bodies in socially approved ways which leave us anything but truly fit,

There is a prayer for the body which Jews have said from ancient times, Asher Yatzar. It reminds us that our bodies are intricate creations which can be disrupted by a small misfunction. I am going to pay more attention to getting enough sleep. So thank you, Daylight Savings, for pointing out to me that I need to make this small teshuvah (adjustment.)

Is there something you need to do to take better care of your marvelous, mysterious body?


If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

May 21, 2013

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”


Asher Yatzar: The Prayer for the Body

July 21, 2012
Anatomy 03 (Quain)

Anatomy 03 (Quain) (Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo)

So far, July has been a month for studying the Torah of the body. I have twice had accidents that hurt my back, and I am just now progressing to crackers and water after a bout of a mysterious virus.

I have been sustained over this time by a prayer that I have come to love. It’s the blessing Asher Yatzar that observant Jews say every morning, either as part of private morning prayers or as part of the morning service:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

After a fortnight when standing is sometimes excruciatingly painful, and my “openings and organs” have been in an uproar, this prayer reminds me that I am not alone. I am one among a whole tribe of human beings made of flesh and blood, and sometimes our fragile, complex bodies are overcome by misfortune or tiny viruses.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this prayer. When we said it every morning in rabbinical school, I would sometimes get angry, because my body is often rather frustrating. I’ve had a very full life, and part of that fullness has included some adventures that left me with old injuries that never healed quite right. I was not always able to “stand before” God, in the words of the prayer. I was so frustrated that I wrote a new version that I felt I could say with a whole heart:

Thank God it all works!

No.

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery:
Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully
That we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Age, illness, and injuries take their toll: bodies are fragile and complicated, and things don’t work sometimes. This takes a toll on the spirit, whether the illness is minor and miserable or major and life-changing. This is part of the human condition. Paradoxically, that is also where the spiritual element enters: it is the human condition. We are finite and fragile. This is what we are.

Nowadays I say the prayer sometimes in the traditional language, and sometimes in my rewritten form. It reminds me that my problems are not unique.  It reminds me that even a creaky, cranky fifty-something body is quite a miracle.

In the meantime, around us, the world continues to be full of wonders: the wonder of a friend calling on us, a spouse fixing the pillow, the beauty of sunshine. The world goes on: I hope to rejoin it soon.

Is there a prayer that doesn’t work for you? Have you ever rewritten a prayer to fit your need?


New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners

June 17, 2012
A Reform synagogue with mixed seating and equa...

A Reform Service

So, you’ve been to Shabbat services once or twice, and found them mystifying. Or perhaps you have been invited to a bar mitzvah service and you have no idea what to do.

Some questions that may have crossed your mind: What are people getting out of this? Does everyone here understand the Hebrew? What’s with all the bowing and stuff? What if I do something wrong?  Here are  some ways to get something out of the experience as a beginner.  There is no wrong way to be in a service as long as you are respectful.  So turn off your cell phone and experiment with these. Some work for one person, some for another. Your experience will be unique to you.

1. RELAX.  You are not the only person:

  • Who doesn’t understand Hebrew.
  • Who wonders what the prayers mean.
  • Who feels funny about all the choreography (bowing, etc.)
  • Who doesn’t sing very well.
  • Who has feelings that make it difficult for you to relax in a strange prayer service.

Jewish communal prayer is not something Jews are born knowing how to do.  It’s a learned art.  You may or may not want to learn the classical approaches to it, but there are ways to have a very satisfying experience as a beginner.

2. ASK FOR HELP.  It is OK to ask for help.  The first thing you may want to ask for is a prayer book with translations in it, if the one you get is all in Hebrew. In a Reform synagogue, all of the books will have translations, and that is true for many Conservative synagogues, too.

If you get lost and don’t know what page you should be looking at, it’s OK to quietly ask a neighbor for help.

3. DON’T WORRY.  If there are English responses, and you are in the right place in the book, mazal tov!  But if you are lost, it is OK to let the rest of the congregation take care of responses. If you become a regular you will learn them, but remember, no one is born knowing this stuff.  One nice thing: if you say Amen [ah-MAYN] at the end of a blessing, you get credit for saying the whole blessing.

You may not know any of the music.  You may know some of it. Sing what you know, sit back and listen to the new things. Let the music wash over you. Sometimes the song-leader or cantor will teach a new tune. When that happens, you are in luck: no one knows what they are doing!  You get to begin with the congregation.

As for standing, sitting, bowing, etc., if you stand and sit with everyone else, you’ll be OK.  If you are disabled or injured, take care of yourself and do what works for you. To learn more about choreography, check out my earlier blog entry, Dancing with the Rabbis.

If an usher offers you an aliyah (a-li-AH or a-LEE-yah) say, “No, thank you.” (That means, “offer you a chance to go up and sing or say the Torah blessings all by yourself.” If you are truly a beginner, you almost certainly don’t want to do that. If you are not officially Jewish, you shouldn’t do it, out of respect. Either way, “no thank you” covers the subject. Don’t worry, they’ll find someone else.

4. LET THE PRAYERS AND MUSIC FLOW. Let the words and the music flow over you. If something is interesting or sticks in your mind, let your mind play with it. Words and music may bring up emotions for you: let those flow, also.  If the book is in your way, put it down (on the bench or in a rack or in your lap – do not put a prayer book on the floor.)

5. LISTEN TO THE MUSIC OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE. When prayers are in Hebrew, often they are prayers that have been said in just that way for hundred or thousands of years. Some people are moved to listen to the Hebrew and simply reflect upon how many generations have said those prayers in that way. Think of the people who have listened to those sounds at some point in their lives: Maimonides, Jesus,  Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Alan GreenspanAnn Landers

6. SIT QUIETLY AND LET YOUR OWN THOUGHTS FLOW. For some people, the prayers are a framework within which their minds are set free, almost a kind of meditation. It is fine to let that happen. Your mind may open in unexpected ways.

7. PRAY. If there is a way you are accustomed to praying, you are welcome to pray in your own mode: have a conversation with God, say familiar prayers quietly, etc.  However, kneeling or making the sign of the cross would be very distracting to others, and is disrespectful in this context even if that is not your intent.

The words of Jewish prayer may also lead you into a dialogue with or a meditation about the Holy.

Jewish prayer has fixed words, words we say every time, but they are there as a framework, so that our spirits can be free to find the Holy. Some of the prayers may even be troubling in their wording, but that’s part of it, too: those prayers push us into thinking deeply about what we believe and the choices we make.

8. LISTEN TO THE VOICES AROUND YOU. Jewish communal prayer happens in community, with a minimum of ten participants, a minyan. Some voices will be sweet and clear; others may be out of tune or mumbled. Some may be rather loud, some soft. Some clearly know all the responses; some stumble. This is what a Jewish community is: a group of disparate voices, all united by the activity of saying the prayers and singing the songs. Likely they will disagree if you do a poll about what they prayers mean, but they unite in Doing.

9. SIMPLY BE. If all of this is overwhelming, try simply being where you are. Feel the weight of your body sitting in the pew or chair. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, feel your heart beating. Feel the emotions that come through, including boredom, if that is what you feel. Judaism teaches that all of creation is good, and that our bodies are good.  This, too, is legitimate Jewish prayer.


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