If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

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.”

The Jewish Cure for Guilt

Open Gate
(Photo credit: Open Gate Farm)

Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” – Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.

Why Bless?

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Today I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”

Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for here (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.)  But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.

Blessings in Judaism are curious.  We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” (bless).  But the Object of our blessing is always God:  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.]  So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”

One answer to this is that Sally’s making coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.

Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.

Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing.  Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.

Fringe Element in Judaism: The Tallit

English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sar...
English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken.   (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].

Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day.  We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.  You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion.  The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.

Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages.  Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.

Tallit & Tefillin 6
Photo credit: AngerBoy via Flickr


Why Study Hebrew?

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.

Selichot: Seven Tips for Beginners

Spill (Photo credit: simpologist)

There are two weeks left before Rosh HaShanah, and you have heard about something called Selichot. Here are the basic facts:

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah. We’re going to deal with the service, since that is probably what you’ve been hearing about.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done.  If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service.  Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

Bat mitzvah in the United States.
Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. The number 18 and its multiples are considered good luck, so a check for $18 or $36 is a nice present. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. However, no present is required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests. Also for some disability tips, read Help: The Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.

For more information on the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guests

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