Prayer-Day 1 Rosh Hashanah

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are united with children, grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. The program sheet that we provide is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are offering during this year. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

         Why are you here today? For some it’s to join together with friends, family and community. For others it’s to hear the beauty of the Cantor and the choir’s davening, letting it reach into your soul. For others it might even be this sermon, in which case I hope I don’t disappoint you.

I have a confession to make: I’ve been struggling for many years with daily prayer. Don’t get me wrong; I love being together with community and helping people who are in their year of mourning or who have Yahrzeit (the Hebrew anniversary of a death) be able to have a minyan to say the Mourners Kaddish. My struggles are with saying the same prayers over and over again, day after day. I’m by nature a person who enjoys variety and spontaneity rather than routine, who likes to try things differently every day to get that extra pizazz or oomph. Part of the reason I chose to become a rabbi was that I never know what the next day will bring.

Some might be surprised or even offended that I bring this up. After all, if the Rabbi struggles with daily prayer, how can he motivate others to attend the minyan? Moreover, prayer three times a day is a commandment from God and one traditional view is that we need to follow every commandment even if we don’t like it or don’t understand it. This view is best encapsulated by the 20th century Orthodox theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, brother of Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who asserted that “waiving the right to a subjective religious experience is the essence of faith: it is utterly devoid of personal interest and/or any rational motivation.”[1] In other words, you daven, you pray, because that’s what God asks you to do; nothing more and nothing less. Leibowitz did just that, going to Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem at 6:30 am every morning to be part of the daily minyan.

In contrast to this was the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century theologian of Hasidic background. In his book Man’s Quest for God, Heschel argued “Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God .”[2] For Heschel, prayer must be centered on building our relationship with God. Heschel did agree with Leibowitz that one must begin by with prayer itself-saying the words that form the corpus of our liturgy. However, for Heschel prayer is more than saying words by rote day after day-it is about one building his/her relationship with God.

This is not a debate that began in the 20th century-rather it goes back to at least the 2nd century CE in the debates recorded in the Talmud (our corpus of laws that used to be passed down orally from generation to generation, comprised of the Mishnah and Gemara). The Talmud records debates between rabbis about the balance between keva, fixed prayer, and kavana, one’s intention behind what he or she is saying. In Rabbi Eliezer of the 2nd century said העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים: The one who fixes his prayer, that prayer is not supplicatory.[3] What does this mean? As shouldn’t surprise anyone, there is disagreement between the rabbis. Rabbi Oshiah, a 3rd century Palestinian rabbi who lived in Caesarea, stated in the Gemara, that such prayer appears to him as a burden, as if he’s just praying to fulfill his obligation.[4] Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph, 3rd century Babylonian rabbis, assert that this refers to any time one prays and does not add something fresh to it.[5]

It is interesting that such a statement on fixed prayer originates from Rabbi Eliezer, referred to by his teacher as “a cistern who never loses a drop”[6] and who at one point stated “I have never said anything that I have not learned from my teacher.”[7] This was especially useful in Talmudic times, when the only books were written by hand, and they were few and far between, leading to people placing great value on memory and recall. Rabbi Eliezer recognized that no matter how good his memory was, more was necessary for prayer than repeating words by rote.

The other side to the debate can be found in the previous Mishnah, which references the Amidah, the central prayer of our service, which we say first silently and then listen to the Cantor repeat it. If there’s any opportunity for personal prayers in the service it’s in the silent Amidah, and traditionally this is where one adds prayers for healing individuals who are sick, for livelihood and for forgiveness. The Mishnah begins by referencing Rabban Gamliel, the President of the rabbinical court, who states “every day one must pray the entire Amidah.”[8] Again a rabbinic disagreement! Rabbi Joshua, well-known as a challenger of Rabban Gamliel, asserted that one can pray an abbreviated Amidah, or “a version of the Amidah”.[9] How do we solve this dilemma? By means of the erudite Rabbi Akiva, who stated that if one is fluent in his/her prayer s/he should pray the entire Amidah but if not fluent, s/he should pray a part of the Amidah.[10] This approach should give comfort to those who struggle with or do not read Hebrew-you can pray an abbreviated Amidah rather than the entire Amidah. After all, God understands our prayers regardless of the exact words we say or the language in which we pray. If abbreviation or alternatives are allowed for the Amidah, the centerpiece of our liturgy, how much more so would they be allowed for other prayers as well! However, for those who can read Hebrew (like me), we’re not off the hook, and we need to read the entire text.

Where does this bring us? On one hand we have an argument from Rabbi Eliezer stating not to make one’s prayer fixed or permanent. One needs to experience joy every day at standing before The Creator and one’s prayer should reflect that excitement rather than a burden. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva asserts that core prayers like the Amidah must be recited in their entirety by those who are accustomed to it. In an age like this, when everything is printed and when one can learn Hebrew, as simple as getting Rosetta Stone, I believe Rabbi Akiva would want each of us to become familiar with Hebrew and pray the traditional liturgy, especially considering that he himself began learning Hebrew at age 40. As a community, we should aspire to something in between, where on one hand we use the traditional liturgy (called in Hebrew the מטבע התפילה) while on the other hand we create opportunities to say our own personal prayers or to focus in-depth on certain prayers in our Siddur (prayerbook). As one who believes that in this day and age we are all “Jews by choice,” I would always want our prayer to be a joy and to pray because we want to rather than because we have to. At the same time, there is great merit to Heschel’s statement that we must begin with prayer, as if we don’t begin the process we will have no shot in strengthening our relationship with God and with our spiritual community.

In a society like ours, that puts great value on “living in the moment” and “what’s in it for me right now,” I would argue that Judaism is a countercultural approach. Daily prayer provides us with an anchor to connect to something greater than ourselves. We don’t always feel the connection and at times we might feel that we’re just “going through the motions.” However, if we don’t try we won’t succeed, and I strongly encourage each of us to try coming to our daily minyan. Prayer is not just about saying words-it’s about transforming one’s mindset and strengthening yourself for the better. Some might do this through mediation, shutting oneself off from the world and focusing on one’s breath. Others might turn to yoga, finding clearness of mind through stretches and body movements. Others might find solace in praying alone in their hearts or through being ensconced in nature. However, I feel that one can find the same feelings and achieve the same spiritual highs through daily prayer at the Jericho Jewish Center minyan. It is not always easy to do so-prayer has been a struggle for me for years-but as Heschel said one must begin the process through engaging in prayer.

There’s a great story which Marty Mehler reminded me of about a shepherd who every day sought to fervently pray to God. This shepherd was illiterate and did not know any of the traditional prayers. Every day he went out to the field and he spontaneously prayed to God, thanking him for what he had. One day a rabbi was passing by and heard the shepherd praying. He rebuked him, proclaiming “You need to pray in the following manner,” and then taught him the blessings of the Amidah, our silent standing prayer. The rabbi departed, and the next morning the shepherd got up to pray again. However, he forgot the words that the rabbi taught him. Embarrassed about this, the shepherd said no prayers.

One night God appeared to the rabbi in a dream. He proclaimed “Why did you stop that shepherd from praying?”  Startled, the rabbi replied, “I did not, I taught him what to pray.” God rebuked the rabbi, stating “He has stopped praying altogether. I used to delight in his prayers each and every day, and now they are now more.” The rabbi instantly awoke and ran back to where he had crossed paths with the shepherd. He saw him tending to his flocks. The rabbi apologized, stating “I was wrong. Please pray the words that come from your heart.” Ever since that point, the shepherd has done just that, praying to God with all his heart. As the rabbis teach, דברים שיוצאים מן הלב נכנסים מן הלב, words which come out of the heart enter into the heart.[11]

There are many versions of similar stories. One has a little child at shul with his father on Yom Kippur, wanting to cry out to God but only being able to say ba-sha-boo. As he says this, the congregants stop their prayers, admonishing the father to walk out of the synagogue with his child, only to be stopped by the rabbi, who proclaims that this is exactly the type of prayer that God wants. In this case the rabbi understands what the rabbi in the previous story did not: that prayer is עבודה שבלב the worship of our heart, and that we need to praise God with everything that is in our hearts.

I invite you to join us right now in soulful, spiritual prayer, the words which come from your heart, as the Cantor will begin to chant the Hineni prayer on Page 124.

[1] Rabbi David Hartman, “Leibowitz and Heschel: Prayer and Relationship of God to the Modern Individual.” Published in Jerusalem by the Shalom Hartman Institute on February 11, 2008.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (New York, NY: Scribner, 1954), 7.

[3] Mishnah Berachot 4:4

[4] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berachot 29b

[5] Ibid

[6] Mishnah Avot (also known as Pirkei Avot) 2:11

[7] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sukkah 28a

[8] Mishnah Berachot 4:3

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berachot 6b

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