Thanks for Life and Breath

Image: Girl blowing a bubble. Photo by AdinaVoicu / Pixabay.

Mornings are tough for me. I’m a night person by nature, jittery in the morning, and now age and arthritis have added a new edge to rising in the morning. I have written in the past about my reworking of the Asher Yatzar, the blessing for bodily function, which is one of the morning prayers. Now I’d like to look at another of the morning prayers, the one that gets me moving. Specifically, this prayer gets me breathing properly and directs my attention outside myself, which prepares me for everything else.

 

  1. The soul that You have given me, O God, is pure!
  2. You created and formed it, breathed it into me,
  3. And within me You sustain it.
  4. So long as I have breath, therefore,
  5. I will give thanks to you. – Mishkan Tefilah, p 292.

This is not the whole prayer. I say it in Hebrew, but it is fine to say it in English. The key to this prayer is that the word for soul in Hebrew, neshamah, is also the word for breath. So one can say this prayer in thanks and gratitude for breath. In fact, we can combine the words of the prayer with breath:

  • Inhale during lines 1 and 2.
  • Hold the breath, and appreciate it, during line 3.
  • Exhale during lines 4 and 5.
  • Pause for a moment, then repeat.

After a few repetitions of that prayer, I’m ready to move. I am less focused on aches and pains and energized by the oxygen in my system. My attention is outward, towards God and creation, rather than inward towards my own thoughts. I’m ready.

I wish you peaceful sleep, and an energetic awakening!

What Can Prayer Do?

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will. – Gates of Prayer

“The Power of Prayer” is a big topic for me these days.

I tend to be very careful about words like “miracle.” I have spent enough time around hospitals to know that inexplicable healings happen, sometimes after family and friends have prayed. But I also know that injury and illness usually run the course predicted by medical science. When a doctor tells me that they expect someone to get well, I believe them. When they tell me gravely that it’s “very serious,” I know what that means.

Where is God in this? I do not presume to know the mind of God – in fact, I am pretty sure that even using the word “mind” for God puts limits on the Holy One that do not apply. God, to me, is the mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s words.

Still, I pray for sick people and since September, I and a lot of other people have been praying for my brother. (For his story, click the link.) I put a pretty cheerful spin on it in that previous post. The truth was that he was gravely injured, and most people with the injuries he had do not wake up; they die. Yet after 5 weeks in a coma, my brother woke up and told his wife that he loves her. A week later I sat in his hospital room, and we were able to communicate. Reports continue to be excellent – he’s recovering his speech and control of his body, and even the super-cautious like myself are calling it a miracle.

Did prayer do it? I don’t know. Did God do it? Absolutely, through the hands of wise doctors and skillful nurses and the life force inside Albert himself. Whether God was whispering to him, “You’re going to make it,” I don’t know. I just know that he is better, and I am grateful.

And yet there is another family somewhere saying, “We prayed! We prayed HARD!” but their loved one still died, or remained in the coma. Prayers are not magic.

I don’t know why some people live and some people die.  I refuse to believe in a capricious God. 

Last night I got another lesson on the power of prayer. I went to Shabbat services, which I haven’t been doing often because all the travel in the last month has left me with big pain problems. I prayed at home, which is good, but it isn’t the same as praying with a minyan. Last night I went to services, and I surrendered to the rhythm of the service: ancient prayers, ancient songs, some of them to tunes written recently by people I know, some composed hundreds of years ago. I heard wise words from my rabbis. I heard encouraging words from our temple president, Sam. I watched as new temple board members were blessed in, one of them a student of mine. (Oh, delight!) And then we prayed some more.

I have been on overdrive since Rosh Hashanah. I was wound so tight, worrying about my brother, worrying about his wife and kids, shepherding people in my care, listening to people talk out their frustrations and fears, trying to give reassurance and strength. I accompanied a family through a complicated funeral. I sat on a beit din (rabbinical court) and affirmed a new Jew.

But last night, through the power of prayer, my heart opened up and I cried. I leaked tears throughout the service, beginning at the “Mi Chamocha,” (“Who is like You?”) the song the Israelites sang after they’d crossed the Red Sea and finally gotten away from Pharaoh. Prayer in the midst of my community gave me what I needed, and challenged me to be more.

Prayer at its best brings us closer to the best person we can be. It builds our compassion for the suffering, and it reminds us who we really are. 

Some miracles are amazing, and some are quiet. I am grateful for both.

Prayer After an Election

There was bitterness before it even began, and bitterness follows it.  Whatever we think of the results, now we are a nation in need of healing. We have to come together. We need insight, we need a truer sense of justice, we need to learn mercy.

A prayer adapted from Moses’ prayer for his ailing sister, Miriam, in Numbers 12:13:

El na, refah na lanu!

Please, God, please heal us!

What is Sacred Space?

Image: The ark with the Torah Scrolls at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX.

One of my favorite blogs is The Cricket Pages by Rachel Mankowitz. If you are a dog lover, it’s a must. She writes beautifully about many different topics, running all of it through the prism of her little dogs’ lives; there’s nothing else on the web quite like it. She posts about once a week, and I look forward to it as much as my Gabi and Jojo look forward to dog treats.

This week Rachel wrote about Sacred Space, and I loved her take on it. First she wrote about a class she’s attending at her synagogue, and then looked at the different ways her dogs make sacred space for themselves. Truly, read it, it’s a treat!

Sacred space has long been a topic that piqued my curiosity. As a child, I noticed that different churches affected me differently: in one, I always felt like I was surely doomed, but in another I thought I could feel the love of God. Some other worship spaces didn’t feel holy at all. The most holy place I knew growing up was inside a mountain laurel grove on a hill on the farm. I loved to sit in there on a mossy log and look at the sky and listen for God.

My early graduate studies were all about sacred space; my first master’s thesis was an analysis of a baptistery in Ravenna, Italy.  I was curious about the fact that people seemed to find certain places holy and other places not. I never really puzzled it all out, but I learned a lot of interesting things in the process.

As an adult, I find that I am harder to awe with architecture. There are certainly many beautiful synagogues and other places of worship, but real awe, Yirat Hashem, the Awe of God, is both easier and harder to find. I have found it at the bedside in an intensive care unit. I’ve felt it looking at the night sky.  Buildings rarely do it for me, but viewing the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls left me in tears. Reading from a Torah Scroll, hearing the shofar blast, praying the words of the service, I am transported out of myself.

Places become holy for me from the things that happen there: the Abramov Library at HUC Jerusalem will always be sacred space, because I studied there with Rabbi André Zaoui z”l, (about whom I really should write sometime.) Another sacred space: the chapel at the Los Angeles Jewish Home where a little minyan of Holocaust survivors lovingly taught me how to lead services the way they liked from an Orthodox prayer book. My teacher and friend Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler’s kitchen table is sacred space to me: she taught me Torah there and comforted me when I was distraught.

I strive to make my home a sacred space; that’s an ongoing project.

Are there places that are truly sacred space to you? I hope that some of you will share in the comments where those places are, and if you have an idea why, that you’ll share that, too.

 

An Unusual New Year

Image: Waveform of a heartbeat, artwork by geralt via pixabay.com.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…

– The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, read on Rosh Hashanah

I’ve been distracted for the past several days. My brother Albert lies in the hospital after a very bad accident. He has not regained consciousness yet, but I am happy to say that we have gotten good reports from the doctors.

Obviously, the circumstances are extremely stressful. The family has gathered at the hospital, waiting for news and wishing we could do more. It’s a time of spiritual yearning. As most of you know, I converted to Judaism as an adult, so I don’t have any Jewish connections in this town. While I know rabbis in many cities, Nashville isn’t one of them. I arrived on Shabbat and Sunday evening would be Rosh Hashanah.

I staggered back into my hotel room after the first day and left a message for my rabbinic colleagues about the situation, including the fact that I needed somewhere to pray on Rosh Hashanah. One of my rabbis back home, Rabbi Yoni Regev, was ahead of me – in a few minutes I had phone calls from two rabbis at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple in Nashville. Rabbi Mark Shiftan invited me to services and Rabbi Shana Mackler made sure I had everything I needed. Both were very comforting; I was barely coherent when we first spoke.

(For my non-Jewish readers: We Jews are a communal bunch. There is comfort and strength and better prayers when a group of us are gathered together. While I have wonderful family here, for prayer I really needed a minyan. It is hard to put into words, but for an observant Jew, there is nothing quite like praying in the midst of ten or more other Jews.)

Because I am a teacher, of course, this is also a lesson:

  1. Every Jew needs a rabbi, and the usual way to have a rabbi is to join a congregation. My rabbi at home used his network to make sure that I had somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah and pastoral care nearby. When I was too upset and scrambled to take care of myself, he made sure I had support. Without my congregation, I’d have been lost.
  2. It is OK to ask for help – it is imperative that we ask for help when we need it. Had I not put the word out that I was in distress, no one would have known I was hurting. It’s my responsibility to reach out when I have tsuris [trouble.] Privacy is fine, but secrecy festers.

My brother isn’t out of the woods, but the signs are good. I feel better about him, knowing that he has excellent care. Praying for him at services was a great comfort, too. If you would like to pray for him, your prayers are welcome; his name is Albert. He’s a big, sweet, strong man and God willing, he is on a path toward healing.

Wow, what a beginning to the new year! I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of blessing and peace, kindness and wisdom!

albert
Albert Menefee

 

 

 

What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!

Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.