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Praying is a Team Sport

February 12, 2019

Jews, if you didn’t know, are pack animals. This is what we do, and what we do best. “Hinei Mah Tov U’mah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad, How good it is, how sweet it is, to sit to together on this day.” This is the most familiar line from the Psalms, the one that almost every Jew knows. And we’ve been singing it together, gathering together, for thousands of years. We’ve done it all over the world, on almost every continent. We’ve done it because we like it, we’ve done it because we’ve been forced into it. Jews have been gathering together to pray for thousands of years, and, in one of the greatest examples of continuity in history, have been consistently using almost the same selections of texts for that entire period.

But what happens when we gather together to pray? What is prayer? Prayer – is not only about God – it is about us. Prayer is about awareness. Prayer opens us up to ourselves, to our community, and to the world around us. Prayer lets us get outside of our own heads and our own experiences to see the world around us and our unique place in it. Prayer is supposed to change us, to inspire us and to ready us for the day ahead, but only if we allow it to do so, and have the right tools at our disposal to help us get there.

So what are we doing when we prayer? Jews in Temple times communicated with God through sacrifices. And so many of our prayers in the siddur are in reference to what we used to do. But that’s not what Jewish prayer is. Our ancestors knew that. Before they started sacrificing they went out into the fields to talk to God. Abraham returns to a place of meaning for him and calls out, בשם אדני, in God’s name. Isaac goes out “Lasuach basadeh,” to have a conversation in the field. When Rebekah is pregnant with twins and in pain she goes and seeks out God, “ותלך לדרוש את ה’”.

I want to pause for a second to clarify something I said earlier. I told you, that prayer is not only about God. And then I just gave three examples of our ancestors using prayer to seek out God. But what I mean when I say that prayer is not about God is that in prayer, God is the same before and after. Whatever you believe about the Divine, prayer probably will not change it. But what you believe about yourself can change. What and how you feel can change. How you relate to the world around you can change.

Isaac went out into the fields that day because his mother had just died. He was in mourning and the only thing he could think of to do was to get outside of his house. Rashi says that he was meditating. I imagine him sitting amongst the tall grasses, humming to himself, searching for comfort. Abraham had just left his homeland and everything he knew and gone off with his family to a new land. He was lost and at the edge of the land of Canaan, amidst a great famine, and he didn’t know what to do next, and so he called out in the name of God. Rebekah was in pain like she had never felt before. And so she called out, searching for answers.

The pain does not ease. Her pregnancy does not magically become easier. Isaac’s pain over the loss of his mother is not immediately assuaged. But calling out, reaching for help, seeking something greater than just what’s inside, helps them through these moments.

This won’t happen every time. But it will happen more often if we are able to create the right circumstances for prayer. And for me, that happens through meaningful connection, first and foremost with other people. Judaism requires that we pray together. This is because in Judaism we know that life is lived in relationship. Life is lived in the myriads of encounters that happen every single day between human beings. That is why almost all of our central prayers are written in the plural, encouraging us to gather together. Ahavah Rabbah AhavtaNU. Baruch atah Adonai EloheiNU. WHY?

Because being together helps us to give each other permission to open ourselves up. To let ourselves be moved. We even say this in our prayers every morning! In the brachot before the Shema today we said,

“וכולם מקבלים עליהם עול מלכות שמים זה מזה,

All the ministering angels, all those gathered together to pray, accept upon themselves, FROM ONE ANOTHER, the responsibility (of the Kingdom) of Heaven,

ונותנים רשות זה לזה, להקדיש ליוצרם בנחת רוח, בשפה ברורה ובנעימה,

THEY GRANT PERMISSION TO ONE ANOTHER, to sanctify and recognize the miracle of creation, of our own existence. They do so with serene spirit, with pure and clear speech and sweet melody.

קדושה כלם כאחד עונים ואומרים ביראה…”

Holiness is created when we call out and respond together as one in awe.

In the Talmud in Masechet Brachot, there is a lengthy discussion on prayer. In one section, Rabbi Eliezer makes a bold statement. He says,

“כֹּל הָעוֹשֶׂה תְּפִלָּתוֹ קֶבַע, אין תפילתו תחנונים”

“One whose prayer is fixed, his prayer is not supplication, it cannot be considered true prayer.”

The rabbis discuss three possible answers for what it means for prayer to be “fixed”?

אָמַר רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב בָּר אִידִי אָמַר רַבִּי אוֹשָעְיָא כָּל שֶׁתְּפִלָּתוֹ דוֹמֶה עָלָיו כְּמַשֹוֹי,

“Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi said that Rabbi Oshaya said: It means anyone for whom their prayer is like a burden upon them, from which they seek to be quickly unburdened.” Our time is short and there is always something else to do, but if we just rush through the prayers to move on to the next thing, Rabbi Oshaya says that that is not prayer.

וְרַבָּנָן אַמְרֵי כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ אוֹמְרָהּ בְּלָשׁוֹן תַּחֲנוּנִים,

“Another opinion, according to the Rabbis, is that this refers to anyone who does not recite prayer in the language of supplication, but as a standardized recitation without emotion.” If we just say the words but don’t pause to understand what they mean, if we don’t recite them in a way that expresses their true value and depth, the rabbis say that is not prayer.

רָבָה וְרָב יוֹסֵף דְאַמְרֵי תַּרְוָיְיהוּ כָּל שֶׁאֵינוֹ יָכֹל לְחַדֵּשׁ בָּהּ דָּבָר.

And finally, Rabba and Rav Yosef both said: It refers to anyone unable to introduce a novel element into prayer. What does it mean for us to introduce a novel element into prayer?

This week’s parashah, Terumah, begins with a command. God says to the people of Israel, “Vayikchu li terumah, Me’et kol asher yadbenu libo tikchu et trumati” “Take for me a gift, from each person whose heart moves them, from them you should take this gift.”

The key to this phrase is “Kol asher yadbenu libo,” “from each person whose heart moves them.” The Torah teaches us that every person should bring a gift of their heart. We should each bring the best part of ourselves. That’s how the Mishkan was built. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the Mishkan was built from all of the goodness from each and every Israelite.

The next verse in the Torah is: “V’zot hatrumah asher tikchu me’itamZahav vachesef v’nechoshet v’tcheilet v’argaman v’tola’at shani v’sheish v’izim,” “And these are the gifts you should accept from them: Gold, silver and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair. And it goes on and on. But all of these gifts were considered equally in God’s eyes! It says in the beginning of this pasuk, “v’zot haterumah,” in the singular. Each person brought the best part of themselves, and together it became one beautiful and whole gift. The key is coming together and bringing your whole self. In bringing your whole self, a self that is new every single day, filled with new things you experienced the day before, you have the power to “lechadesh bo davar,” “to add something new to prayer.”

In My People’s Prayer Book, Rabbi Larry Hoffman paints a beautiful explanation of this idea. He says, “Every page [of the siddur] becomes a cross-cut through Jewish history. To be a Jewish pray-er, then, is to join the ranks of the millions of pray-ers who came before us, leaving their comments in the margins, the way animals leave tracks in the woods. Go deep in the forest, and you will come across deer runs, for example: paths to water sources, carved out by hundreds of thousands of deer over time. The deer do not just inhabit the forest; they are a part of the forest. They change the forest’s contours as they live there, just as the forest changes them, by offering shelter, food, and water.”

So therefore, we must give ourselves the opportunity, the time, and the space to journey through the forest of prayer. To walk the paths our ancestors have walked before us. To sing out in search of that water source of inspiration and connection. Not only that, we must leave our own markings in the margins of the siddur.

And when we are able to gather together, we can, we must, give each other permission to bring our whole and true selves with us. Shabbat has been the gathering place of the Jewish people for as long as we have been a people. In Parashat Vayakhel which we’ll read in a few weeks, Moses gathers the people of Israel together and gives them the laws of Shabbat, explaining to them that they should observe Shabbat and refrain from doing any work. The Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, asks, if we are to refrain from doing any work on Shabbat, what is it that we are supposed to actually do? Rather than just listening to what Moses is saying, we are supposed to learn from Moses’s action, by what he is doing. Moses gathers the people together on Shabbat. Vayakhel, He turns them into a kehillah, a community. And that is what we are supposed to do, too.

How good it is, how sweet it is, to be together on this day. When I was growing up, my parents would host Shabbat dinner almost every week for twenty, sometimes thirty or more people. Each week after we lit Shabbat candles, my mom would read a Shabbat prayer that she received from my grandmother. She would unfold a tattered piece of paper with a handwritten note on the back from my grandmother. The words resonated so much with us that my brother and I memorized it, and say it whenever we are gathered together with others on Shabbat and holidays.

As we continue with the rest of our Tefillah together, let’s join our voices together in song and continue the work of building a holiness for Shabbat here in this place. I hope that these words resonate for you as well, and that you come back next Shabbat and the Shabbat after that to let these words become actions in your lives. If you feel the same at the end, you are welcome to say Amen:

We are grateful O God for the heritage of Shabbat, and for the companionship of those with whom we have gathered.

May our coming together help to banish worry and anxiety, and enable us to share moments of true Shabbat joy.

May the hands of those who break bread together be hands of friends and family who support one another.

May the voices which chant and pray on this Shabbat be voices of kindness and truth at all times.

Grant us the capacity to value our friends and family, and to enrich the lives of those whom we love.

May we deepen our concern for all your children, and renew our devotion to our people and our faith.

On this Shabbat which we share together, help us to feel your presence, O Source of Life and Love.

Shabbat Shalom.

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