Listen, Israel! The Eternal* is our God, the Eternal is One!
The Sh’ma is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and often the last prayer on the lips of a dying Jew.
A teacher once gave me an exercise that I still find useful:
1. Find a quiet place to sit.
2. Say the first word of the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma.” Say it aloud, and listen to it.
3. Think about what that word means. Let your mind flow to other possibilities than the usual “Hear.” Or let your mind linger on the sound of the word. It’s up to you. (You can do this either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for you.) Let your mind play with it until it is ready for something new.
4. Take a moment to be completely silent. Then take the next word, “Yisrael.” Say it aloud. Listen to it. Think about what all the various things the word means to you. Let your mind linger on it for a while.
When you are ready, proceed through the rest of the Sh’ma, one word at a time.
Sh’ma. Yisrael. Adonai. Eloheinu. Adonai. Echad.
Listen. Israel. Name of God. Our God. Name of God. One.
Now here’s my question: What does the Sh’ma mean to you?
*The actual word in Hebrew is the Name of God, which Jews do not pronounce. You may fill in with “Adonai,” “HaShem,” “The Eternal,” “Lord” or whatever works for you. Or you may simply be silent.
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?
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.
Andrew Silver asked: Quick question: During prayers when the reader says Baruch Atah A…, they pause and the congregation says what exactly? Baruch hu shemo, or something like that.
Baruch shemo or baruch hu shemo in this context means “Blessed is God’s name.” (Literally, it’s “blessed is his name” but of course God has no gender.) It’s a little addition that some people like to make to the blessing, when the blessing includes the Name of God, or rather, the stand-in for the Name.
The Hebrew name of God, the Tetragrammaton [τετραγράμματον is Greek for “four letter word”] is never pronounced aloud. It is spelled yud-heh-vav-heh, but we no longer have the vowels to pronounce it. Moreover, tradition has forbidden we say the Name since at least the time of the Mishnah (c. 200 CE,) and probably long before that. Instead, observant Jews make substitutes for the Name, and sometimes substitutes for the substitutes:
Instead of the name, in prayer we use the word Adonai (“my Lord” in Hebrew.) Some observant Jews do not use even that name aloud except in prayer, and in normal speech substitute Hashem (“the Name” in Hebrew.) Reform Jews commonly use “Adonai” but still avoid pronunciations of the Name itself.
But what about Baruch shemo? It’s a further way of paying respect to the Name of God. When in a blessing the shaliach tzibbur (service leader) says “Adonai” (the stand-in for the Name, remember?) some individuals may say “Baruch shemo“:
Service Leader: Blessed are You, Adonai —
Congregant: Blessed is God’s Name!
Service Leader continues: Our God, Ruler of the Universe…
In congregations where this response to the Name is common, service leaders often pause slightly for it, so that it will not obscure the rest of the words of the prayer.
Jewish prayer is active and interactive. We sing, we chant, we have choreography, and depending on the custom (minhag) of the congregation, there is room for improvisation. This is one example of the way that Jews make the traditional prayers our own.
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.” In there is also 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?
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. 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 the moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that!)
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!
This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth. By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water.
So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.
I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?
Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year. That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.
Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.
And that is a good thing, because we – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.
So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.
This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.
I know what I’m supposed to be doing today: I’m supposed to be getting lesson plans ready for the winter, writing thoughtful blog entires for days ahead, studying a little Torah lishma (Torah just for its own sake), visiting an elderly lady, and unpacking my library. That was the plan.
What is it that they say, “Man plans, and God laughs?”
I have a cold. I have one of those stupid sorts of cold that gums up my brain so I can’t think and renders me into very little more than a factory for germs. I can’t go visit any shut-ins: this bug might kill them. I can’t follow my own notes for a lesson plan. And the only thing I can think to do with my blog is whine about my cold, which is very, very lame.
Here’s what I want to know: why did You make the Common Cold virus? Is is just to keep us humble? It’s a trivial illness for most of us, miserable but inconsequential. It will pass in 7 days to 3 weeks, leaving no trace. And yet:
I remember when a cold virus got loose at the nursing home where I was a student chaplain. It was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallway; it took half the souls on the first floor alone. For the frail or the already-sick, this thing is no joke. So I must be careful with it, stay home for the worst of it, carry tissues and wash my hands like a crazed raccoon when I do go out, because every sneeze is the launch of a zillion warheads.
So here I am, whining to the internet: Poor me. Home with a cold. In my nice warm house, with nice warm soup on the stove. With my own bed. With loving friends sending me the occasional text: are you OK? Do you need anything?
Maybe the lesson of the cold is this: for at least some of us, there are always blessings to count, even when the count sounds like “One, Du, Tree.” And the universe is not all about me: it’s going right along, cold bug and all, while I hunker down with my blessings to get over it.
When I feel a bit more coherent, I should do something about the people with fewer blessings: those who lose their federal benefits this week, those who don’t have warm soup or a warm place to be. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to learn a little compassion for those whose illnesses are not so trivial, who feel just as miserable and know that they will never feel better.
But… first I have to get past the worst of this cold. Please, God, heal me, and help me learn whatever it is I can learn from this thing.
I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”
The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!” “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.
In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.
Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)