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Rabbi’s Writing

Why Do We Pray? Rabbi David’s Talk on Yom Kippur Morning 5779

If you’ve ever come to Saturday morning services at Temple Beth El, you know that there’s a part of every service when I share aloud one of the English readings from the back of our prayerbook. I’ve been doing this for quite a while now – October 1st will mark eight years since I became the rabbi of this wonderful congregation – and although I don’t mind repeating myself, by now I’ve read aloud most of the English readings that are back there. One day in June, I was deeply moved by a reading that I hadn’t really noticed before – a piece written by the preeminent 20th century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel. This piece is fairly long, which may be why I hadn’t previously read it during a service. So much of the reading is insightful and beautiful, but here’s the part that most resonated with me:“Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home, the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home… For the soul, home is where prayer is… What is a soul without prayer? A soul runaway or a soul evicted from its own home. To those who have abandoned their home, the road back may be hard and dark and far, yet do not be afraid to steer back. If you prize grace and eternal meaning, you will discover them upon arrival… It is in the light of prayer’s radiance that I find my way even in the dark. It is prayer that illumines my way. As my prayers, so my understanding.”As soon as I read this, I knew that I had found the impetus for, and subject of, this morning’s talk. We’ve talked about many important aspects of Judaism on Yom Kippur morning over the last few years – our topics have included God, Jewish values, Jewish community, and Judaism itself. But no topic is as relevant to Yom Kippur in particular as the topic of prayer. For the last two months, I’ve asked you to go on our website to share your answers to the questions “What does prayer mean to you?, What are you doing when you pray?, and Why do you pray?” On this day when we say more prayers than on any other day of the year, when we understand our prayers to be so incredibly consequential, there is perhaps no more important issue to explore. It’s worth noting that Jews are supposed to say a lot of prayers all the time – not just on Yom Kippur. Based on a Talmudic interpretation of a verse in Deuteronomy, Jews are expected to say 100 prayers each and every day. By definition, this makes us a highly prayer-oriented people. With prayer being so important to us – especially today – it’s important to investigate what it actually is, and how it came to be such a prominent part of Judaism. As you may know, when Jewish life began with the Ancient Israelites, prayer wasn’t the focal point of their religious practice. In ancient Israel, the way for people to worship God was to bring offerings to The Temple in Jerusalem. You would present either your best animals, or your best wheat if you didn’t raise animals, to be burned upon the altar and sacrificed to God. The English word ‘sacrifice’ is what’s usually used today to describe these offerings, but the Hebrew word for one of them, קרבן (korban), is based on the root that means to be ‘near or close’ – meaning that presenting a קרבן was an action that was supposed to bring you closer to God, and/or bring God closer to you. This implies that the קרבנות (korbanot) weren’t necessarily about asking God for something, but instead were supposed to lead to literally having more God, more of the actual cloud that our ancestors believed embodied God’s Presence, in your life. That more corporeal understanding of God’s earthly manifestation has faded for Jews over the millennia, and the system of worshipping God through the offering of קרבנות died off when the Second Temple – thought of as God’s physical home on Earth – was destroyed two millennia ago. Although we no longer call our acts of ritual worship קרבנות, the idea of trying to draw God closer to us, and/or us closer to God, is certainly an appealing reason to pray – in fact, one of the writers on our website described prayer as “Our bond with G-d. It is the way for us to be closer to Him.”The system of קרבנות was replaced by the schedule of prayer services, designed by the rabbis, that we still follow today. These acts of ritual worship are called תפילות (tefilot) – which is literally translated, in Hebrew dictionaries both biblical and modern, as ‘prayers.’ The root of that word, .פ.ל.ל (pey lamed lamed) is defined as meaning: ‘to intervene, interpose, arbitrate and judge, intercede and pray.’ It seems that the קרבנות were replaced by a system for directly asking and petitioning God – whatever God is – for things that we want or need.God’s role is apparently foundational to what prayer is for many of you (God is, of course, the addressee of the majority of Jewish prayers). In your website submissions, several of you described prayer as “a conversation with God.” One person said prayer is “What connects us to a higher power that is not as easily addressed as talking to a friend, parent, child, or the stranger. It is a pathway that gets us closer to what we want in life, and how we understand our connection to G-d.” Another person called prayer “The webbing that binds us to G-d, to our traditions, and innately to who we are.” For many of us, prayer serves as a conduit to the Divine, a pathway to a relationship with God. One person explained that “Praying gives me the opportunity to try to seek G-d within me,” while another said “I believe there is divine energy available to us in the universe, and that when we pray, we initiate a collaboration with God.” All of these verbs – conversing with, getting closer to, feeling bound to, seeking, collaborating with – strike me as expressions of the hope that whatever God is, it’s something that we can have some kind of active connection with (by the way, if you weren’t here for it, ‘What is God?’ was the topic of my Yom Kippur morning talk five years ago). Clearly, prayer is a primary way of connecting with God for many of us.For others, prayer’s biggest role is as a method of communal connection. I sometimes find the most meaningful aspect of prayer to be my sense of connection to the people I’m praying with, as well as to Klal Yisrael, the greater Jewish community around the world. Reciting the same prayers that other Jews are saying – which are usually many of the same prayers that Jews have recited for centuries – helps me feel like a link in a chain that goes back a very long way. Some of you feel this way as well. One of you wrote “Prayer is a way of maintaining mental contact with the generations of my family who are no longer living.” This brings to mind the Jewish value of לדור ודור (l’dor vador), from generation to generation: the idea that living as a Jew, and teaching our children about Judaism, is how Judaism is preserved and maintained. Another person said “Prayer seems to be the easiest way to commune with G-d and our Jewish community. It’s one of the mechanisms that binds us together.” I find one of the most truly awe-some aspects of the High Holidays to be when so many of us join together to chant prayers. I imagine that I’m not the only one who experiences beauty, majesty, and transcendence during moments like the chanting of the Barechu on Yom Kippur eve, or Avinu Malkeinu during Neilah. At moments like that, the feeling of connection to each other is so potent, it almost doesn’t matter what we’re saying. Another writer also felt this, saying “Prayer is far more meaningful, and more powerful, when other people are part of the conversation.” As we’ve talked about in the past, communal activity is an essential aspect of Judaism. Few Jewish practices can be effectively performed alone – including prayer. As a rabbi, I end up praying a lot. But exactly what I’m doing while I’m praying, and what I hope to get out of praying, is not always clear to me. In fact, I often find that I have a fairly different spiritual experience each time I enter into prayer – maybe that’s the case for you as well. There are times when I end up praying in the most traditional sense, according to the dictionary definitions, when I find myself asking God for particular things to happen in the world (in both Hebrew and English dictionaries, the first definition of prayer – תפילה [tefilah] is the Hebrew word I’m talking about – is petitioning God to intervene for us). But doing that conflicts with my concept of what God is and isn’t – one thing that I personally don’t think God is, is a sentient being that’s actively listening to my personal requests for help and deciding which ones to respond to. There are also times when I ask God for more general things to happen in the world: for there to be peace, for the people I know and care about to be healthy and well, for the people I don’t know to be healthy and well, and for other similar positive conditions to develop around us. This is something I almost can’t help doing – at those times it feels like all I’m really doing is sending more positive and hopeful energy out into the world – but that’s not any more in accord with my rational sense of what God is or does. There are times when I pray, when I experience the words of our prayers as something like a mantra, carrying me into a meditative state in which I feel a deeper sense of connection with the Divine, and with everyone else around me. But that usually doesn’t last very long, since our prayer services have a lot of interruptions, and my logistical concerns as the service leader often interfere with maintaining that elevated state. There are times when saying our prayers connects me to the Jewish people as a whole, when knowing that I’m participating in the same ritual and saying the same words as every Jew on the planet who’s also at services for the same reason, reinforces my sense of belonging to the greater Jewish community. But I know that I can also experience that sense of connection by engaging in other rituals like lighting candles or eating particular foods, so that sense of connection comes to feel like a less fundamental aspect of the prayer experience. There are times when I experience praying as a journey to something deeper, to someplace else – as someone wrote on the website, “Prayer is a journey that benefits from preparation, openness, and reflection.” As I mentioned last night, I think of the services of Yom Kippur as a meaningful spiritual journey. But the work that journeys like that require isn’t something that I can easily do on a regular basis. There are times when I stand up at the Bimah, open up my mouth, and I feel nothing – when I say the same words and make the same movements that I always do, but I don’t find anything meaningful there at all. There are also times when I stand up there, open my mouth, and end up experiencing something powerful, magical, and transcendent – something that I can’t describe or articulate at all. As someone wrote on our website, “Prayer is an experience that does not always succeed in accomplishing its goal and is often filled with doubts.” Intellectually, I find prayer to be both multifaceted and confusing – sometimes it’s meaningful, sometimes it’s comforting, sometimes it’s deeply moving, and sometimes it’s boring and/or discouraging. And sometimes, it’s all of those things at the same time! This leads me to think that prayer is never supposed to be just one thing – that perhaps it’s more like the spiritual equivalent of a mathematical variable. Its contents – both the hope, meaning, and intention that you put into it, and the experience that you have inside of it – are supposed to vary greatly, depending on what’s going on in the place where you’re praying, in your life, and in the world around you. This would mean that a prayer is not really a specific experience in itself, but more of a verbal and emotional structure in which to have whatever kind of spiritual experience is available to you at that moment. I think that’s why I like this Heschel quote so much – it expresses, in language far more elegant than what I can conjure, the nature of prayer as a structure, one that holds content that frequently changes. As the “established residence for the innermost self,” as the “home of the soul,” prayer is a way for us to connect with what’s going on inside of us – a status that should, logically, vary nearly every time we check on it. It also means that, just as homes vary widely depending on who’s living inside of them, the experiences of saying both the same and different prayers should vary – the Shema, for example, may mean different things to us each time we say it, and there’s a good chance that it holds a variety of different meanings for the millions of different people who say it. One person who wrote about prayer on our website shared the notion that prayer has meant different things to them at different stages of their life. That person said: “As a child I thought prayer was something we did to be grateful for what we have. As a teenager, it was a place of refuge. As a young adult, it seemed monotonous. But as I have aged, I see more meaning in it than I ever imagined.” Most of the time, I completely agree with that statement. But then there are the times that I talked about earlier, the moments when I open up my mouth and nothing happens. This can occur when any of the different prayer experiences I described earlier just won’t happen, but more than any other, these are occasions when I find petitioning God for things to seem pointless and/or fruitless. I know that I’m not alone in this. As one person said, “Prayer is not a substitute for action… Concern about general suffering in the world and in the news should be focused on concrete action, such as monetary donations, and concern about our friends and acquaintances should also be reflected in concrete action, e.g. visiting them. After we have done that, we can pray for their well-being.” As we know, Judaism is a tradition that focuses on what we do, far more than on anything else. Little if any of the Torah addresses our thoughts and feelings – the majority of the non Temple-related מצוות (mitzvot) are about the things we do to each other. This results in us being a people of action, as this person wrote about.When something happens somewhere in the world, or to someone we know, the default response for many, many Jews is to find out what we can do to help. Whether it’s collecting needed items, giving or raising money, donating meals, or visiting the sick, we spring into action, and usually give those endeavors our fullest efforts. This makes us wonderful helpers in so many different situations, but it also means that we have problems when two particular situations arise: when our endeavors aren’t enough to solve the problem we’re trying to address, and/or when there’s no longer anything else to be done to solve that problem. After you’ve dropped off food for your sick friend, have visited them several times, and have shared with them all of the research you did about their disease, you can reach a point when there’s actually nothing left to do for them. As the last writer I cited pointed out, that’s when we pray – regardless of whether or not we believe that petitioning God for things works. We pray then because there isn’t anything else to do. We pray then because we don’t know what else to do. We pray then because any or all of the wonderful things that I’ve described today might happen to you while you’re praying – you never know. We pray then – and at many other times as well – because prayer is a vessel for our hopes and our fears: it’s a space where we can place, and process, the conflicting feelings of hope and helplessness that arise from so much of human experience. We pray because we all have moments when we’re in the dark, when we need radiance and illumination, and prayer is what can provide those things to us. We pray because once you’re done doing, after you’ve stopped for a moment, you’re likely to notice that your soul is aching – and you need to help your soul rest for a bit, in its home.My prayer for us, in this new year, is that we all find the ways that we each need in order to spend less time in the darkness, to more effectively grapple with the conflict between hope and helplessness, and to allow our souls to spend less time in pain, and more time in their homes. This year, may more of our prayers be comforting, meaningful, connective, and transcendent. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will. And let us all say, “Amen.” Thanks, and – here’s another prayer – may we all be sealed in the Book of Life today. Gmar hatimah tovah.