The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.
Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.
Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.
Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.
Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.
The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.
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Although he has now healed into death, I prayed for the recovery of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, for many weeks this summer, folding into my daily practice a prolonged chant of Moses’s plea on behalf of leprous Miriam: Ana, El, na, refa na la. Please, God, please heal her.
Just a few months ago I was with Reb Zalman as he chanted the morning liturgy accompanied by whirling Sufi Dervishes, this, in itself, an ecumenitical healing. Now, as I mourn and review what my teacher has taught me, I recall my own first experience collaborating in prayer across religious modalities and dogmas.
It was the second week of my residency in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and looking over my shoulder as I scanned my patient census, our department chair noticed a patient had identified as a member of the Church of Christ. She offhandedly pointed to this patient name and said: “You’ll want to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I probably blanched visibly, most definitely not wanting to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, wondering what I was to do if this was the expectation?
I headed to the neuroskeletal surgery unit with trepidation.
There, I visited with Ruth, recovering from numerous spinal fusions. When I asked about her experience, she explained, smiling: “Jesus is filling in my cracks!” This reminded me of a story the Integrative Medicine doctor Rachel Naomi Remen tells about her final therapeutic session with an oncology patient wherein she returned to the patient a picture he’d drawn at their first meeting, of himself as a broken vessel. She asked if, now, these many months later, he’d like to emend the drawing in any way. The patient picked up a yellow crayon and drew rays of light pouring out of the cracks.
My patient was deeply moved by this story and we spoke of what it is to be filled with supernal light, and how that seems even more possible when one is broken open. Ruth said that when we’re sick we need a healing God and I saw that she was able to visualize God healing her as God filled her with Presence.
Then Ruth told me she’d never met a Jew, and asked if I spoke Hebrew. Could I pray in Hebrew? I said yes, and that we could pray Moses’ biblical words of supplication when his sister Miriam was so very sick. Oh yes, she would like that, and could I hold her hand?
So I chanted Ana El Na in the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s haunting melody… And in the intervals where I was accustomed to hear members of the community intone names of those in need of healing, Ruth began to murmur and then call out: I see you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Baby Jesus!
I smiled to myself. Here we were, collaboratively praying in the name of Jesus Christ and I had not sublimated my identity or compromised my theology. Rather, Ruth’s completion of my prayer to her own satisfaction had deepened my part in the mitzvah of healing the world.Ana El Na, Aryeh Hirschfield, as sung by Hannah Dresner
Today, among the many other things you do in your busy life, pray for the safe return of three kidnapped Israeli teens:
Naftali Fraenkel 16, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gil-Ad Sha’er, 16
Take a moment any time today to pray for Naftali, Eyal, and Gil-ad. You can add the 250 Nigerian school girls, and all children around the world that have been forcibly taken from their families.
If prayer isn’t your usual thing, it might not come naturally. So, here is a very simple prayer anyone can say today (please cut, paste, or forward it as you see fit):
Holy Blessing One, my heart is heavy with fear and sadness on behalf of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gil-Ad Sha’er. I am overcome by the worry of their parents, family, friends, and community. I pray too for the safe return of all children around the globe who have been taken from the loving embrace of their families. Let them be safe. Let them be reunited with their families—alive. Let me feel safe and appreciative of those in my life. Let us all feel the safety of our connections. Amen.
What does it mean to pray for an outcome you have no direct control over?
- Prayer changes the person praying. To pray means an expression of empathy. It means to hold these children in your heart and mind. To feel or imagine their fear and their family’s pain.
- Prayer means a cultivation of hope. To pray means to hold on to hope, to keep alive possibility, even remote possibility of a positive outcome.
- Prayer changes the Universe. For outcomes that are not certain, we keep open the possibility that our sentiment, does indeed effect the universe. In religious language we speak of a flask of tears—our prayers—that God collects. God, the “Rock” is actually shaped by the drip-drop of our collected tears. We change God in the unspoken but clear language of our sincerity. In more “scientific” terms, we are conscious that every action, every molecule effects its surrounding. In that sense, we are all connected. When we pray, we hope to be part a movement that changes outcomes for the better.
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A few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.
It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?
Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.
I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?
The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?
And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.
What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?
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Each week, I put out a call on Facebook for those in need of blessings. I time these calls to connect with ritual making bread for Shabbat. It is customary to set aside a portion of dough, as a token of recognition of God’s generosity, when making a large amount of bread. Fulfilling of the obligation provides a unique opportunity for prayers of healing and divine intersession. Most weeks I make a large quantity of bread and have always offered personal prayers for those who I knew were in need. But within the last year or so, I have been placing calls on social media to add names to my list.
At the beginning, I was unsure what this odd call into the wilderness would yield. Was Facebook, the forum for cute babies and cats, breaking news and political commentary a place for prayer?
The results have been instructive.
Unlike the cute baby photo of my kid that I recently posted, I don’t get a deluge of responses. Each week not many more than handful of people take me up on the offer and simply like my post and I add them to my list.
But it is not quantity that matters. Many just leave a name or a ‘like.’ Sometimes I know from their feed what the issue is, sometimes not. But opening up this venue has lead to some of the most meaningful sharing and connecting that I have experienced on social media. I have learned some amazing and difficult truths about what is going on in people’s lives.
Here is some of what I know, that you might have missed completely.
- Your friend with the perfect kids in the amazingly cute dance outfits is not sleeping at night because it has been more than a year since her husband had full time employment
- All the photos of food in fancy restaurants are the way B. recovers from another bout of bad news at the fertility clinic.
- The increased posts about the family dog are in inverse proportion to the level of affection M. is feeling for her husband. Any day now she is likely to replace her spouse of 11 years with another pet.
These are not of course the precise details of what people share with me weekly, but they are typical of the kind of sharing that does happen.
The real secret is that if we push beyond the surface sharing that typifies social media, we have the power to connect and create something truly sacred. As one father in crisis, wrote me that he was grateful for my weekly offer because he is working hard not to make his child’s suffering and trauma the focus of any more attention than it need necessarily be. But as a result, he is without support that he desperately needs. Even though he rarely remarks on my post, my weekly offers reach him like a beacon of connection in sea challenging isolation.
Prayer has that power to move us beyond the facile connections of Facebook in no small part because it offers the recognition that that there something more, possibly painfully so, than high scores on Candy Crush, sunsets on beaches, or reports of snow days. In Jewish tradition prayer is best said in a community. In no small part gathering together, physically challenges the isolation that so many of us feel.
But we need not turn to prayer to create holy or deeply meaningful connections. Consider taking a Facebook post ‘offline’, with a phone call or an email or even in person. Remind the person what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Take time to share some of what is going on in your life, the real stuff not just the fluff. Listen for the challenges and difficulties that they face.
That is the secret of meaningful transcendent connection.
A number of recent essays have been swimming their way across the blogosphere and seem to have serendipitously swirled together. The Conservative movement, even at its largest and healthiest, has always been, like the Jewish people itself, overly worried about its imminent destruction, so when a young woman asks why men raised in an egalitarian setting, who like her, care about halakha, leave for Orthodoxy, when she cannot do so, when the Pew report seems to indicate shrinkage in the stable Jewish middle, when the once-dean of a Conservative rabbinical seminary writes the movement’s obituary, and when the smirky response to the woman asking how her friends could abandon her is responded to with the claim that it’s her own fault for daring to be equal, cause ya know, men can’t stand to have anyone be equal to them, it makes them expendable, one might expect a flurry of worry from the most worried of all Jewish movements. And there were.
Of course, there were also some very interesting discussions spawned from these articles ( by which, yes, I do mean to imply that I found most—except for the first of these—exercises silly). The one that I found myself most interested in was a discussion of when we lost the idea of obligation, and how important it is to get it back. Not simply for the idea of halakha—but also in terms of obligations to one another, and to our communities, and to God—rather than the pursuit of happiness, that goal that seems to take up so much of Americans’ time, and yet be so fleeting.
And so I invited those people who, like me, are Conservative because we care about halakha, deeply and passionately, and we care about the idea of obligation, in all those ways, to have a conversation about how to revive it: To revive a sense of seriousness about halakha, about egalitarianism, and about obligation, together.
The Conservative movement is my home because these are all things that I cannot do without, and I’m ready to find that core of people—whom I know are there, because I’ve met them and davenned with them, and eaten with them—so that the Conservative movement knows they’re there, too.And I invite you too. If you’re interested, leave a message for me and let’s start talking.
“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own. For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.
In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.
Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera. After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.
Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.
In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:
Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,
Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.
Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.
Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.
And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart. As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.