Make a Window in the Word

My favorite Hasidic teaching is a teaching about prayer couched in a homily on Noah’s Ark. God tells Noah to make a window in his ark. Teyva, the word for ark, means container. Teyva is also Hebrew for letter, or word, containers of meaning.  Thus, the teaching on prayer is: make a window in the word.  This means that our prayers should not be confined by the “box” of conventional liturgy. Rather, our words should be openings through which what is in us can flow out the window of the word, reverberating through our bodies and our imaginations as it expands into the universe, free in expression, free to rise up to the God on High, or sink deep into the God within us.

Loving this teaching, I am always looking for the window, wanting to open it for myself, as well as for those whose spiritual lives I am tending. And the converse is true: I am always looking for multiple points of entry, seeking avenues of access, particularly during these Days of Awe when we flock to the synagogue because we believe our choices matter, that our sins actually have ripped at the universe, and that our repentance really does count.

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The rivers of words that are our traditional liturgical poetry, coupled with the powerful musical modalities of traditional davening (praying) affect many of us, carrying us on a hypnotic wave of prayer. But even this is a window in the words, for we are not as involved in the meaning of line after line of language as we are in the overall flow of the prayer-song, leading us back to our essential selves.

Some of us need an expansive silence to contain our mindful awareness. Some of us return to our authentic selves bodily, kneading the dough of our round challot, or metaphorically sending our sins adrift on the water of a running stream. Some of us hear a call in the shofar’s sound, dance our authenticity and sing our longings or play them on our instruments. We gravitate to stories that resonate with our own truths and wrestle with texts to puzzle out the important questions. We, alternately, take comfort in the large community and want to crawl into the solitary womb of the holy day to do our own private work, emerging renewed. And we are not consistent; we might flit from portal to portal, choosing the modalities that suit us as we wrestle with ourselves, strengthen our cores, and realign with what feels truest.

As a congregational rabbi, I see it as my job to multiply the variety of opportunities available for captivating our High Holiday minds and dreams. So at Or Shalom in Vancouver, we will begin with challah baking, challot in the form of small birds, to song in the year, to soar with our aspirations. We’ll experiment, sounding the shofar, we’ll meld Hasidic melody with jazz improvisation in praying Selichot (prayers of repentance) and we’ll foreshadow the holiest of prayers, playing them on clarinet and saxophone. On the evening of Rosh Hashanah we’ll engage in story-telling, a story by the enigmatic Reb Nachman of Bratslav, whose themes are of being lost and being found, and of going back to a time before time in the great spiral that moves us forward by way of the backward glance of self-awareness. We’ll see the story danced, hear it told, and see it danced again. On Rosh Hashanah we’ll raise our voices in a collective drone of longing into which the shofar will be blown, and on Yom Kippur a member of our community will sing the words of the High Priest as she bows to the ground, repeatedly enacting the ancient ritual of atonement.

We’ll break to study Talmud and to process our Yizkor memories in small group, and we’ll chant at the gates before the final Neila prayer. All this, in the context of the traditional davening, both the core and the sacred container that holds the multiplicity of voices and creativity.

I think of each of these points of access as a tiny point, indeed, a point of possibility that, if entered, has the potential to blossom into great sanctuaries of understanding and teshuvah – restoration.

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