Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Parshat Beha'alotcha 5767: Should We Toot our Horn?

Numbers 8:1-12:16

This week's portion is full of many stories. In the middle of this, God instructs Moses how to play the trumpet:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Make two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shall you make them; that you may use them for calling the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps. 3. And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble to you at the door of the Tent of Meeting. 4. And if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes, which are chiefs of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves to you. 5. When you blow an alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts shall go forward. 6. When you blow an alarm the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side shall take their journey; they shall blow an alarm for their journeys. 7. But when the congregation is to be gathered together, you shall blow, but you shall not sound an alarm. 8. And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance forever throughout your generations. [Numbers 10:1-8]

We are all familiar in some extent with the blowing of these horns. The silver trumpets of the Temple were replaced with the shofar of the High Holiday service. The blowing of the horn in this text is tikiah and the blowing of the alarm was t'ruah or possibly tikiah t'ruah. The one point where everyone from the youngest to the oldest person in any congregation is in the same room is to hear the shofar.

Why this? Why of all the things that happens during services is the Shofar so important? When I was young, all I remember is that everyone made big deal over this silly ram horn. Some might give the answer that it is time to wake up, but that answer has never satisfied me – why do the little ones need to wake up?

In the modern service, the shofar for me is just show, razzle dazzle which keeps the crowds coming in who are not there to say the Shema or Amidah. I may be immensely cynical here but it is the shofar and Yizkor which fills synagogues on the high holidays, some obligation to do those two things that are not done at daily or Shabbat services. I believe we are trained from an early age to find obligation in hearing the shofar. Indeed the rabbis of the Mishnah require hearing the Shofar. Yet the Rabbis are very clear in requiring the Amidah and Shema daily. For some reason people come running to hear the shofar but are hard pressed to say the Shema even once a week.

One answer is in its novelty. It is a part of a tradition which only occurs at a certain part of the year. The Shema is a part of the mundane, said at least twice daily if you are observant. Such mundane tasks are forgotten in much of modernity, yet the novel event, like the shofar is remembered just because it is different.

Yet the sounds of the horns or shofars of biblical times were very different than modernity. They were the mass communication of the day. While they might not be sounded every day, they were sounded each time the cloud moved from above the Mishkan, not just once but twice. One half, referred to as the east camps would begin to move on the first tikiah t’ruah. When the second tikiah t’ruah was made the south camps moved. When the cloud was at rest the sound of tikiah gathered the people together for worship and teaching. It was an occasion that happened often in the time in the wilderness. It happened when moving from place to place or before sacrificing at the festivals in the desert.

The sound of tikiah and t'ruah were the sounds of coordination. Today in many synagogues, they are merely the sounds of tradition and obligation. We tech them to the children sitting there excitedly because it instills in them some sense of meaning of tradition, yet in most congregations we do not gather at the high holidays to say the Shema as a family. The Shema, shouted at the tops of lungs, with our hands over our eyes can have just as much meaning and sound as the Shofar – and it can be done every day by anyone.

As far as children and shofars go, we are also told by the rabbis:

Children need not be stopped from blowing; on the contrary, they may be helped till they learn how to blow. [Rosh Hashana 33a]

Even among children it is not an issue of hearing as much as doing, even it if is done wrong or at the wrong time. While one can witness the shofar it is even better to train the next generation to sound it with the kavvanah only children seem to have. Numbers 9:8 tells us this is “for all generations” and for it to be for all generations we must in each and every generation practice, practice and then practice again.

What I read in this text is something that disturbs me. A tradition of coordination and community changes into a tradition of mere entertainment. What the prophets complained about sacrifices being superficial, I can complain about the shofar. Like I said I may be merely cynical or cranky this week. The only saving grace for me is that in that entertainment there is some sense of wonder. There is always the possibility there kids sitting down there in front of the bimah kids who might just say “I want to do that!” and begin to practice. For most adults that will not happen, but the imagination of a child and their lack of “can’t” that adults have learned over the years does not stop them. Maybe from the shofar those kids will learn to practice others things, even the Shema.

I can only hope.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shavuot 5767: Perception is the Key to Revelation

Shavuot is the day we commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments. Immediately after the recitation of the Ten Commandments, we read

15. And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away. [Exodus 20, 15]

How does one see thunder or the sound of the shofar? One way is that the word for seein Hebrew means to perceive. In that case, hearing would be including in perception. So I looked into the Targums to see what the Aramaic translation. Had they had problems with this word, they would have changed it. They might have used hear or another word for perceive in their translations. I found that the Targums Onkelos, Neofiti and Pseudo Jonathan use the word which only means see. None used the word for see that could mean realize or perceive. Targum Pseudo Jonathan, adding a bit to the verse, translates:

15) And all the people saw the thunder how they were changed in the hearing of each and every one of them, and how they were coming out from within the fire, and the sound of the shofar how it revived the dead, and the mountain smoking. All the people saw and trembled so they stood twelve miles away. [Ps-J Ex: 20:15]

It didn’t make much sense. I checked the word thunderings in Midrash Rabbah. It clarifies the above, but starts with another problem with this text.

It says: And all the people perceived the thunderings (Ex. XX, 15). Note that it does not say ‘the thunder ‘, but ’ the thunderings ‘; wherefore R. Johanan said that God's voice, as it was uttered, split up into seventy voices, in seventy languages, so that all the nations should understand. When each nation heard the Voice in their own vernacular their souls departed, save Israel who heard but who were not hurt. [Ex. R. 5:9]

The rabbis play on the word for thunder, which is a plural for sounds or voices. Since it is in the plural, it must mean more than one. It was not thunder at all but the Voice of God translated into every language simultaneously. That way, everyone would understand. This apparently overwhelmed everyone but the Israelites. The Midrash continues:

Just see how the Voice went forth-coming to each Israelite with a force proportioned to his individual strength-to the old, according to their strength, and to the young, according to theirs; to the children, to the babes and to the women, according to their strength, and even to Moses according to his strength, as it is said: Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice (Ex. XIX, 19), that is, with a voice which he could endure. Similarly, it says: The voice of the Lord is with power (Ps. XXIX, 4)3; not ‘with His power’, but ’with power’, i.e. with the power of each individual, even to pregnant women according to their strength. Thus to each person it was according to his strength. [Ex. R. 5:9]

Revelation at Sinai was not the same for everyone. It was according to how that person could understand without being overwhelmed. God did not change the people to understand one message. God changed the message so that each person understood it.

Lately, I have been looking at how individuals perceive the world. There are three primary senses: sight (Visual), hearing (Auditory) and touch (Kinesthetic). I conducted a survey of sensory preferences last week of the Shlomo’s Drash e-list. Earlier that week, I tried the same thing on restaurant managers. This week and next I am surveying health inspectors. My goal is to see whether different occupations or activities have a tendency towards one preference. God changed his message to the individual at Sinai. Can people do the same when communicating?

What I found among these groups was rather interesting. My first shock was the restaurant managers. 85 percent of them had split preference for the visual and the kinesthetic. While data is still preliminary, it looks like the inspectors will be strongly Visual. All but one in the survey are Visuals, and that one is Visual-Kinesthetic. Among Shlomo’s Drash readers who responded, approximately 24% were Kinesthetic, 20% were split Visual-Kinesthetic and 20% were visual.

Anybody notice what’s missing?

Indeed the smallest numbers on any of the groups I surveyed are Auditory preferences. This is reflected on the national survey I researched. A vast majority of people do not use their hearing as their preferred way of perceiving the world. Close to 65% of you reading this use your auditory channel the least of the three. Yet the text in Exodus 20:1 reads And God spoke all these words, saying. God giving the Ten Commandments verbally is the worst way to communicate.

Thus I believe that the use of see the thunders was more than just changing its strength for each and every person. It changed into the modality that each person could understand the best. Anochi Hashem Eloqecha was not just sounds. It was visions and it was feelings as well. Everyone had the experience of divine revelation. No one person had the same experience. As these were former slaves and thus physical laborers, it is likely they too were Kinesthetics. Many felt the sound and trembled, then did a very kinesthetic thing – they moved away.

Divine revelation, either at the moment at Sinai, or today is given in one particular way. More likely than not, God rarely talks directly to someone. Instead God communicates in the modality that makes the most sense to the receiver.

Shavuot is the time when we commemorate the giving of Torah at Sinai, through the act of divine revelation. We thus commemorate divine revelation itself. We remember that every day God gives us Torah. Indeed the Maharal of Prague noted that in the Torah blessings we do not use the past tense who gave us the Torah. Instead we use the present tense who gives us the Torah. Each of us does not perceive the daily giving of Torah the same way. Thus God sends a different message to each one of us. We need only to pay attention and see.

Or Hear…or Feel…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Parshat B’midbar 5767: In the Word,In the Story

Numbers 1:1-4:20

I want to talk about story.

This week, we begin the book of Numbers, B’midbar in Hebrew. It starts on a very boring note: census data. Parshat B’midbar is seemingly not the most exiting stuff in the world. The book B'midbar will contain many stories. Indeed most of the book is story.

Funny thing is, looking at the census data, it too is story. Once you being to look at the all this information you begin to see things. People’s names in particular.

7. From Judah: Nahshon the son of Amminadab. [1:7]

3. And on the east side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah camp their armies; and Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, shall be captain of the sons of Judah. [2:3]

Stories can be put together from many places. So we read of Nahshon back in Exodus

23. And Aaron took him Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Nahshon, to wife; and she bore him Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. (Ex. 6:23)

Nahshon is Aaron’s brother-in law. If we read a later text we find:

20. And Amminadab fathered Nahshon, and Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21. And Salmon fathered Boaz, and Boaz fathered Obed, 22. And Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. [Ruth 4:20-21]

Nahshon is the Grandfather of Boaz, who will marry Ruth. Ruth and Boaz in turn will be the great grandparents of King David. In the book of Ruth, we also find that Nahshon was descended from Tamar and Judah.

Names lead us down the path of stories. Nahshon is only mentioned nine times in the entire biblical text. He is not a very big character himself. Yet he can be connected to just about every major figure in the bible. Stories are meant to be embellished, and indeed Nahshon’s story has one particular embellishment.

R. Judah b. R. Il'ai expounded: When Israel stood by the Red Sea the tribes stood contending with each other, one saying, ' I will go in first,’ and the other saying, ' I will go in first.’ Thereupon Nahshon leapt into the waves of the sea and waded in. [Numbers Rabbah 8:4, Sota 37a]

The rabbis couldn’t resist adding the story of Nahshon most people remember. He was the first into the drink, even before it split. He didn’t talk, he just acted, and it was his act that caused the miracle according to some stories. If you knew of Nahshon you probably didn’t know he was a grieving uncle when Nadab and Abihu died. But you did know the powerful lesson, one driving all of Judaism, that it is our actions that are paramount.

One story that I repeat far too often lately is the one of the Hasidic Rabbi Leib. Rabbi Leib went to study with the Great Maggid not to learn Torah, but to learn how the Maggid of Mezhirech ties his bootlaces. To know the deeds of sages in even the little acts of everyday life and to tell stories has a powerful effect. We might have explicit rules but we also need to have something else to get us to do those rules. Story, aggadah, is that thing. We in Judaism do not believe in enforcement. Indeed the verb root for enforcing a rule is the same word for oppression. Instead we look to a different way, we model the behavior of our best and brightest, and we communicate that behavior through story.

As one of the greatest models for much of Modern Jewish behavior, The Baal Shem Tov believed when one tells stories in praise of the tzaddikim, it is though he were engaged in something as powerful as Mystical study. Stories, unlike law, tend to stick to us, because we have the experience that the rest of the world has. There is something concrete, and something emotional about Nahshon’s story, which is so different than merely stating a principle of “deeds, not words.” Nahshon entering into the Red Sea for me brings back images of being afraid to be the first to dive into the camp swimming pool. The fear is there. It is a very real place and time in my memory. Your vision of the event like Nahshon’s may be different. Yet, I believe that most everyone had a time and place they felt like the Israelites at the Red Sea, whether they did what Nahshon did or what the Israelites did there.

Story is summarized by my tagline, “It is a matter of Torah and I am required to learn.” [Ber 62a] If tying shoelaces is not enough, R. Akiba and his students telling stories of the toilet habits on one’s teachers in these stories on folio 62a of Tractate Brachot crosses the line past the absurd. We learn something incredibly important in such absurdity however. Our bodies are creations of God, everything done with them can be done in holiness and intention. I can make the statement or tell the story. The story is what is remembered and understood.

B’midbar is a collection of such stories set in the wilderness, the chronicle of the journey from Sinai to being at the shores of the Jordan, ready to enter the land of Israel. We meet many people besides our main characters of Moses and Aaron. We will meet pagan magicians, talking donkeys, rebellious relatives, slanderous sisters, irritated father in laws, a guy who works on Shabbat and his brilliant daughters. We get Satan’s first appearance in the biblical text, and a consortium of bad guys. People will whine, argue, lie, get sick and many will die. In all of these stories we will also see a bunch of whiny slaves turn into an unstoppable fighting force, only to be stopped by an application of social psychology. By the end, we find a people who are responsible enough to begin a new journey and a new story, the story of living in the land.

While we do not live in the wilderness, sometimes the events in our lives make us feel that way, in the next few weeks we get to revisit stories which help in those times. We get the emotional relief that we are not the first to see an unknown land, be it a new job or school, and feel like grasshoppers compared to the inhabitants at first glance. At the same time we are told by Caleb not to fear for we can do this thing, merely because we can. God is with us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel decried the over-emphasis on Halakah, the law, over Aggadah, the stories where we get our motivations, ethics and theology to follow the Halakah. They need to be a polarity, not one or the other but a balance. As we enter into the wilderness with the stories of the Israelites, lets’ look for the beautiful gems of story that can improve our live by telling them and living them. Maybe we will become stories too.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Parshat Behar Behukotai 5767: Quid pro quo?

Leviticus 25:1-27:34

In a double portion, finishing up the book of Leviticus this week we read:

1. You shall make no idols or graven image, nor erect a pillar, nor shall you set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the Lord your God. 2. You shall keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary; I am the Lord. 3. If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 4. Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.[26:1-4]

While all the good things continue for a few verses, we then read these verses

14. But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments; 15. And if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul loathes my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant; 16. I also will do this to you; I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart; and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. [26: 14-16]

This will lead to progressively worsening conditions from famine to invasion to exile, until what remnant would be left of the Israelites would become paranoid exiles in foreign lands, afraid of the rustling of leaves.

Last week I put a footnote about Haya Im Shmoah, the reading from Deuteronomy 11 that is often omitted in liberal liturgy of the Shema. Haya Im Shmoah begins:

13. And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14. That I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil. 15. And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, that you may eat and be full. 16. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; 17. And then the Lord’s anger be kindled against you, and he closed the skies, that there should be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you. [Deut. 11:13-17]

In both Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 11 there is a quid pro quo view of divine commandment and intervention. Do bad things and get bad. Do good things and get good. Some find this it a simple model of theodicy, the philosophy and theology of why bad things happen. There are preachers and rabbis who say that 9/11 or Katrina was a punishment for our misdeeds. For most however, this is simplistic and absurd, if not a heartless, painful way of describing such tragedies. So many people, not wanting to believe in such directness, reject such passages.

I’m not so sure rejection is wise. There are two issues that intrigue me about both passages I have a hard time ignoring. One is apparent only in the Hebrew. Unless one lives in the southern United States, in English “you” expresses both singular and plural. These sections are in the plural. They are addressed at a society as a whole. We as individuals cannot live to that expectation. We take the burden of all of society on our selves. We would need to be responsible for everything – and we can’t.

The specific transgression that causes the bad things is Idolatry. What is Idolatry? As we read repeatedly, Idols were physical objects which one bribed in order to get something in return. The Torah, given this understanding, makes another leap. Idolatry was not bribing a god at all but mere self absorption. Since there is nothing really there but a block of wood, the idol is a self delusion, a honoring of the Self instead of honoring the Creator of All.

Shabbat, the Sabbaticals and Jubilees we read about in this portion are about physical rest of people, economies and of course the land. They are also pauses from the regular grind to remind us we are in relationship with everything. In such pauses, we learn to be amazed at how wonderful and powerful such relationships are. Today it would be hard to find many people actually sacrificing to a wood or stone idol as a god. It is a different matter to think of self-absorption as idolatry. When we spend all of our time working or doing the stuff that matters to us personally and for our personal benefit only then we too are guilty of Idolatry.

Martin Buber believed we need to get away from the I-it experience of idolatry and move to the I-thou relationship, where the I was our perception of everything else. We hear repeatedly, from the first utterance at Sinai on, I am the Lord. There is a third possibility, I-I. We as limited beings are not everything, but instead part of an entire system of relationships, not one relationship, but infinite relationships with infinite things. God transcends these relationships. God created matter, but also created the relationships of all of these things. God is the entirety of those relationships. The first ‘I’ is the ‘I’ of I am the Lord, the entire system. That ‘I’ meets the ‘I’ of the limited human of I-Thou. I-I describes us as an integral and vital part of God. We are also an infinitely small part of God as well because everything else is too. As Heschel reminds us, we do carry two passages with us always, The world was made for my sake and I am but dust and ashes.

It was not because you were greater than any people that the Lord set His love upon you and chose you. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, I love you because even when I bestow greatness upon you, you humble yourselves before me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham, yet he said to Me, I am but dust and ashes;(Gen 18:27)[Chullin 89a]

To proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He: If a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the Supreme King of Kings, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake. [Sanh. 37a]

When we lose this perspective then we move into idolatry. We must remember we are integral to every other relationship, and yet be very humble about that role. If our deeds are for the Self only, we stop caring how we affect all other relationships. When we stop caring, we cause damage. Such damage is cumulative, first affecting us in small ways then bigger ones, until our entire world is destroyed. Each one of us has the potential to do this. If a lot of people do the same the damage is worse. In whole societies we see the damage.

Divine retribution is not quid pro quo. It is the consequence of our actions. We are responsible for everything, as God commanded humanity back in Genesis 2. We have a stewardship of our personal and professional relationships to our communal and environmental ones. Such stewardship requires us to do the right thing and have the right relationships. Each will affect the other. All too often we forget that. When I davven Haya Im Shmoah, or read a passage like this week’s I am reminded once again.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Parshat Emor 5767: How Do We Pray?

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

For the last two years of Parshat Emor, I wrote a rather startling sentence: I can't pray because I'm afraid of praying. At the time I wrote:

More accurately, I don't think of myself as praying, or having acceptable prayer towards God. My prayer ascends to heaven the very same way a brick does: not at all. In this weeks portion we are to learn that the offering to God must be perfect, without defects. And here I am unable to read the Hebrew prayer without flubbing every third word. I'll admit it's an improvement. Ten years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that since I couldn't read Hebrew. These words of our liturgy I cannot say perfectly, nor can I always have perfect intention, as my anxiety over my poor Hebrew reading skills overwhelms me. And somehow English doesn't work here; it's too much for me like giving a turtledove instead of an ox for sacrifice. That said I'm really good at faking it, I've been faking praying most of my life, though I feel like a fraud when I do.

In doing a lot of thinking about theology lately, I’ve been using the Song of Songs as a springboard. Thinking about Prayer, I am reminded of the following verse

Oh, my dove in concealment of the cliff in steep hiding places.
Show me your appearance let me listen to your voice
For your voice is sweet, and your appearance is beautiful. [Song of Songs 2:14]

While I have often looked at the Song in its literal sense, I also believe that it is underneath a theology, and since studying Heschel, I have come to put Heschel’s ideas of God in search of man to be the story within the Song of Songs. The song is an unrequited relationship between two very committed partners. The male protagonist, representing God, calls out to the hiding female, Israel, to listen to her voice, to talk to God, to pray.

But what is this thing called prayer? At its simplest it is talking to God. There is no one way to pray but a spectrum from personal prayer to liturgy said as Minyan. Yet in order to understand prayer I look to how I pray. I pray three ways: the liturgy in synagogue, the liturgy in private prayer, and my personal prayer to God. Each of these contains different elements of the idea of prayer.

Within prayer there is keva, the form of the prayer and kavvanah, the intention and passion of prayer. There is keva in a set liturgy, one solid enough I can pick up a prayer book and recite it out of the book. I don’t have to do anything other than recite it.

Yet intention is also important. Hasidism in particular elevated the idea of praying with intention, yet they were far from the first. Even the Talmudic rabbis saw the power of having deep intention while praying. The rabbis note:

One should not stand up to say tefillah [i.e. the amidah] save in a reverent frame of mind. The pious men of old used to wait an hour before praying in order that they might concentrate their thoughts upon their father in heaven. Even if a king greets him [while praying] he should not answer him: even if a snake is wound round his heel he should not break off [Brachot 30b].

In the Talmud, they explain this statement by claiming that one should pray like Hanna. Hanna was one of two wives of a man named Elkanah who was barren while her rival wife, Pennina was very fertile. After a stream of verbal abuse from Pennina, Hanna went to the Mishkan where Eli the high priest happened to be sitting and prayed:

10. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly…13. And Hanna spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought that she was drunk. [I Sam 1]

Hanna’s apparent drunkenness was the ideal state of prayer, so intense the outside world does not exist. Her lips move, but no sound comes out of them so concentrating on the words and the connection with God. Hanna models Kavvanah. She has an intention. She also has attentiveness to God. She has a deep, intimate, connection with God. Yet this is an ideal state. In reality, it is rather difficult to do or sustain. This is where Keva, the form and structure, helps. It is like a man on a journey with a map. He must rely on landmarks found on his map to orient himself and find his path. Liturgy is our map. The prayers we recite daily, every Shabbat or on holidays act as markers to the higher state of kavvanah. Such markers exist because we can get lost easily.

When I am not in a synagogue, but there is a set time to pray such as Friday evening, I pray alone, yet follow the liturgy. Besides acting as a map, liturgy has other purposes in prayer. For some prayers, such as the Shema I am commanded to say them. Others, like L’cha Dodi or V’shamru on Friday Night, are integral for creating the sanctity of Shabbat. In their absence, my prayer would neither be special nor commemorate the time. But liturgy is also the comfort of having a common Jewish prayer. It can be compared to a single traveler making his way on the road. He may use the unknown rarely traveled back roads, or he may use the well-traveled Interstate. If the traveler gets stuck or is low on gas, he is more likely to find help on the Interstate than on those back roads, hopelessly lost. By praying the liturgy, I have the ability to learn the way to pray, and in times of crisis I have prayer readily available in the nearest Siddur.

Yet there are times that I do pray without liturgy. These are times when I am like the traveler who see the snow capped mountain in the distance – he needs no map because the destination is so awesome and clear that no one can miss it in the terrain. In deep emotional times, both sadness and joy, there is a time for prayer. Hanna prayed directly from the heart, without liturgy. Hanna’s prayer, however, was a prayer of petition, one that wanted God to do something. Heschel in his last interview before his death in 1972 stated:

First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in the Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of is to praise to sing to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and Man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved.

Although intense and a prayer of pure kavvanah, Hanna’s petitionary prayer takes a second seat to praise. The song of radical amazement with creation is the highest prayer. We see how incredible this world is that God made, and sing out in joy. Yet even here, I sometimes fall back on liturgy or the biblical text. Sometimes it is merely a heartfelt ma’aseh Breshit (blessed is God who makes creation) sometimes a part of a psalm comes to mind, often for me from eternity to eternity you are God (Psalm 90:2). But this type of prayer is the most intense. In some ways it is the easiest, in that it is from the heart. There are no liturgies to memorize. Our prayer can be our own words. Yet it is also the hardest. We all too often in our busy lives miss the radical amazement around us, and never pray. Even when we try, our heart is the least disciplined part of our psyche, as we read in the Shema, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside [Deut. 11:16]*. It often leads us astray from our goal, where we head towards that awesome mountain, yet turn off the path to say “how beautiful is this tree.”

Then there is third type of prayer, the one we do in community. This connects us with God in a very different sense than that of individual prayer. It is in the Perkei Avot which describes this best: When there are ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shechinah abides among them. [Avot 3:6] It is the ten people for a minyan. We are all minted from the same coin, yet each unique. But one coin does not make a currency. People in a Minyan create a collaborative effort, and as such some prayers, like the Kaddish can only be done in such a collaborative effort. We each add to the prayer experience of the other. Where Kavvanah might be difficult to achieve for an individual, it is not so difficult when created by community. The spirit of the heart increases in the environment of collaborative kavvanah, the orchestra is more than the violin soloist. You can also compare this to a candle. One candle might burn bright. Ten candles, even when they do not burn individually as bright as that first candle collectively light the room far more than the one candle. Prayer as community provides us with a support, to bring more kavvanah to our prayer.

However, if we prayed our own personal prayer in community it would be chaos. Here too the keva of liturgy provides us with a way of coordinating our kavvanah. When we pray the Shema together, we speak in one voice, coordinated, whole and with intention. The liturgy contains moments of personal prayer, such as the silent Amidah, punctuated with moments of communal prayer in its repetition. Thus we create a fluctuating prayer liturgy that increases both the communal and the personal. Such an experience creates an environment where our attention to prayer can be brought higher than our personal prayer alone.

Yet there are difficulties. Communal prayer can become dogmatic. It can then have the least amount of kavvanah, with route recitation of the words. There are schools of thought that so emphasize rote recitation there is nothing but the keva. Heschel attacks this as “religious behaviorism,” where the supreme article of faith is a respect for tradition. “People are urged to observe the rituals or to attend services out of deference to what has come down to us from our ancestors.” Heschel attacks this as “grotesque and self defeating.” Such dogmas create an intense conformity, and are self limiting. Judaism realizes that what we believe in “surpasses the power and range of human expression” to find the great power of the community. All those different coins of different visages become the same coin of the same visage in fundamentalist belief, and the creative power and communal brightness of kavvanah dims.

Prayer may be a personal connection. It may also be the connection of Israel to God. This determines the when of prayer. We pray at set times of the day and we pray certain prayers to commemorate events of the Jewish people. As Heschel reminds us, Judaism is not anchored in space, but in time. We commemorate not places as much as events. The Sabbath is a commemoration of creation, and every seven days we remember and celebrate that. Part of that remembering is the recitation of prayer. We pray three times a day to commemorate the times of the sacrifices. We change that liturgy to commemorate Shabbat, as we add and subtract things for other holidays.

Abraham Joshua Heschel comments that the best way to learn how to pray is to pray near someone who knows how to pray. Sadly, there are not many who know anymore. Neither my fear of prayer nor ignorance of prayer should then be surprising. Yet, I still pray so God hears that beautiful voice God so strives to hear.

*I know some of you are not familiar with that verse. Some liturgy, such as Reform, removed the second paragraph of the Shema, the Haya im shmoah. It is a statement of direct cause between doing good and evil and divine reward and punishment, and some are uncomfortable with that. I don’t read it that way but rather we are stewards of this world and are responsible for it. I usually include it in my private prayer, since it is rare in the minyans I attend.