A Prayer for December 25

May all my Christian readers have a Christmas of holiness and love. And may the rest of us find a respite from our routine today.

Tonight’s full moon will be beautiful, reflecting the light of the sun. May it remind us that lights of celebration (of whichever holiday) are merely a reflection of the true light, the Source of light.

May each of us find the strength to reflect the light of heaven, bringing warmth and light to this poor world of ours. May all those who are suffering be comforted, and may each of us be a comfort to someone in need.

An Interfaith Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Heart of the Universe,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day.
Grant us the love and patience with which to respect,
indeed, to appreciate our differences,
and to seek common ground for this festive meal.

Grant us mindfulness about this food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the brilliant cooks in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we have received.



I posted a slightly different version of this blessing last year; this one is modified to be useful for interfaith families.

A Fragile Home


My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us


I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

Pay Attention, Israel!

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

The Door to Amazement: Why We Bless

…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

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.”  That question leads us to 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?

And what about those for whom the idea of God is more abstract, who find it rather odd to talk to an Idea? Why bother with blessings?

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. That pause may only be a fraction of a second, it may even become a reflex, but it is a moment of sacred intention breaking in upon the mundane. 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 a moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that, too!)

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!

The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!

The Patience of a Little Dog

When Linda is away, Princess often waits by the front door. She stares at the frosted glass, hoping for a shadow. Dogs are wonderfully patient. Princess will go do other things for a while, but she always returns, hoping.

This is one of my mental images of prayer. We sit by the frosted glass, hoping for a glimpse of the Infinite One. Maybe this morning, maybe not. But as Princess would tell us if she could, it’s worth the wait.