SpiritualityYom Kippur

Kol Nidre 5778 – The Heart in Prayer

Kol Nidre. Here we are at the opening service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We have a big crowd; it’s one time a year when even if there were a Crimson Tide football game, attendance wouldn’t be down much. Or at least I like to think that attendance wouldn’t be down much. If I’m wrong, let me live with my fantasy.

Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, tells the story of how one year when he was very distant from God, it was the evening of Kol Nidre, and he had no idea. He happened to turn the TV on and there was a feature about Yom Kippur. He heard the Kol Nidre melody being played on a cello, and he said, “It went through me like a knife. That melody struck a deep chord. It went all the way in. It went straight to my soul.”

Rabbi Lew continues,

When we recite the Kol Nidre, God calls out to the soul, in a voice the soul recognizes instantly because it is the soul’s own cry. You may have come to this service for other reasons. Nevertheless, here you are, sitting in your body, and suddenly your soul hears this music and it gives a jump, and it startles you. Your soul is hearing its name called out, and its name is pain, grief, shame, humiliation, loss, failure, death—or at least that is its first name. That is the name the first few notes of the Kol Nidre call out.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that Kol Nidre is boring. The combination of the haunting melody, the presence of the entire community, the feeling that this is the time we’re trying to get it together to start the New Year with a clean slate, all lead to engaging our hearts. Even if we don’t understand the Hebrew, we can feel a connection with our community and with God through an ancient and moving ritual.

Prayer is NOT fundamentally an intellectual exercise. Prayer is from and about the heart.

Psalm 102 describes one kind of prayer beautifully: “A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before God.”  Prayer is about pouring your heart out to God. The most beautiful and moving prayer in the entire Torah is a simple one that Moses offers on behalf of his sister Miriam when she was afflicted with tsuris, a sort of spiritual leprosy:  El na rafa na la, Please God, heal her!

The urge to pray comes from that urge to pour out one’s heart before God.  The origins of prayer are not only in requests, in asking for things, whether material or spiritual.  The origins of prayer are in crying out.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, describes it, “[prayer] is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice.  It is the call of human helplessness directed to God.  It is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God.  It is like the child’s running to the mother because it hurts.”  Prayer is not just about asking for things—it’s about having a relationship with God.  If your child falls down and gets hurt and comes running to you, it’s not so much for the “Barbie Band-Aid” as it is for the comfort of being close to a parent.  Being held, being told it will be OK.

You tell a spouse how you feel—frustrated, lacking, lonely, stressed—and you not only feel closer to your spouse, but you also feel comforted just having someone listen.  If you are having a good time, things are going well, and you are happy, you also want to share that with your spouse.  That’s what prayer is about.  To know that God is listening, that God is there, that God cares.

So what happens to our hearts during synagogue services during the rest of the year? For all too many people, the heart goes missing, and services seem boring. As Abraham Joshua Heschel described us in his 1953 essay “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”: “[P]eople who are otherwise sensitive, vibrant, arresting, sit there aloof, listless, lazy. … They recite the prayerbook as if it were last week’s newspaper. … Prayer must have life. … It must not be flattened to a ceremony, to an act of mere respect for tradition.”

And nowadays many people don’t even sit there – they vote with their feet, and find other more engaging things to do on Saturday morning.

What happened to our prayers? How did our prayers go from “a spontaneous call in need,” to “please turn to page 223?”

I think we have two problems.

And both are fixable.

The first problem is that we Jews are, to a large degree, far too much in our heads and not enough in our hearts when it comes to God. Too many of us may believe in God in an abstract kind of way, without really having a relationship with God.

This is a bigger problem in Conservative Judaism than in other denominations. The biggest seminary for Conservative rabbis, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is one of the premier institutions for the study of Judaism in the world. Historically they took a very academic, scholarly approach. This is exemplified by the legendary introduction that Professor Saul Lieberman, at the time one of JTS’s top scholars, gave to a lecture by Gershom Scholem, then the world’s leading kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) scholar: “Narishkeit is narishkeit (nonsense is nonsense) – but the history of narishkeit is scholarship.”

For a long time, Conservative Judaism trained rabbis who were great scholars, but who were a little out of touch with the heart and the people. At one congregation I served, I was told one of my predecessors was such a scholar, and he would regularly give sermons that were very scholarly, and over the heads of 95% of the congregation. When the president of the shul discussed this with him, he replied, “I’m not going to dumb my message down.”

Fortunately, this attitude is changing. At the Ziegler School, where I studied, we had a professor of kabbalah and chasidut, and we weren’t studying the scholarly history of narrishkeit – we were studying Jewish mysticism, with an eye toward the ways those teachings could deepen our own spirituality and give us tools to help us bring meaning to our rabbinic work. We are finding our way back to the heart.

The other problem we have is our over-reliance on the siddur, the prayerbook. When the Temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, it meant sacrifices could no longer be offered. Sacrifices could only be offered at the Temple. What to do? The rabbis came up with a brilliant strategy: substituting prayers for animal sacrifice. Instead of offering cows we offer words. Instead of sheep and goats, we offer the Shema and Amidah.

The only problem is the rabbis went too far. They legislated a prayer for practically every activity you can think of. There’s a specific prayer you say when you hear thunder. A different prayer to say when you see a rainbow. Yet another prayer to say when you see a friend you haven’t seen in over a year (I kind of like that one – praising God who “revives the dead!”). There was an online debate among my rabbinic colleagues about whether or not one should recite a prayer when seeing a total eclipse, and if so, which prayer to say. Some sources say we don’t say a prayer for a total eclipse, because it’s considered a bad omen. When I saw the total eclipse in Oregon in August, it was a spiritual moment. It was absolutely amazing. I don’t know how anyone could witness that and not be in awe. So I did offer a blessing – and I didn’t obsess about which blessing is the technically correct blessing – I more or less said, “Wow, God, that is AMAZING!”

The problem with overreliance on the prayerbook is that it drives prayer out of our hearts and into our heads. It turns prayer into an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional experience. It does not encourage a feeling of relationship with God. What kind of relationship would you have with your spouse if the only time you talked to him or her you were reading from a book?

So what do we do? How do we find our way back to bringing our hearts into prayer, into feeling awe in the synagogue?

Some people think it would help to get rid of the Hebrew and make the service much shorter. But I don’t think that’s the answer. You can be bored in English. And an hour can seem interminable if you’re bored.

A Calvinist pastor, R. C. Sproul, said,

A recent survey of people who used to be church members revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church was that they found it boring. It is difficult for many people to find worship a thrilling and moving experience.

Sproul speaks to the solution:

“How awesome is this place!” This was Jacob’s response to being in the house of God. People do not normally feel that way in church. There is no sense of awe, no sense of being in the presence of One who makes us tremble. People in awe never complain that church is boring.

People in awe never complain that church – or synagogue – is boring. People having a spiritual experience are not bored.

How do we have that awe or spiritual experience? I suggest there are two things that can help a lot: having a personal relationship with God, and the right kavanah, intention or focus, when we do pray.

For many of us, the first step in developing a personal relationship with God is getting our heads out of the way.

It’s a fundamental teaching of Judaism that God is not corporeal. God doesn’t have a body. Yet when we read the accounts of God speaking to Moses in the Torah, it’s very personified. You can picture God looking like either the God in Michelangelo’s famous rendering in the Sistine Chapel, or perhaps as George Burns or Morgan Freeman, depending on your taste in movies, having an actual sit-down conversation with Moses. But God doesn’t talk to any of us in quite that same clear baritone voice, so we wonder what’s the point.

There’s a big philosophical debate in Judaism over whether God is involved in every detail of your life. Some people believe God is, others view God as simply an abstract force that made the Big Bang go bang, there are as many ideas about God as there are believers.

It’s entirely possible to put your intellectual ideas about God aside, and pray and talk to God as if God IS aware and concerned about the details in your life. In many ways, the God I believe in intellectually is not the same as the God I pray to. Being comfortable with that tension has allowed me to have a much richer spiritual life.

Spirituality and feeling a connection to God is a very personal thing. Different approaches work for different people. All I can share is what has worked for me on my spiritual journey.

There are two things that have helped me a great deal: making prayer a daily habit, and talking to God in my own words, literally pouring my heart out to God.

Regarding the first point, making prayer a daily habit, can you have a deep relationship with someone if you only talk to them once or twice a year?  Remember when you were first in love, and needed to call (or email, or IM) your beloved at least three times a day, just to check in?  That’s why our tradition tells us to pray three times a day, every day.  The path to intimacy comes through spending time together.  One of the ways we spend time with God is through prayer.

Making prayer a daily thing can have a profound effect on your connection with the words.  Rabbi Chaim HaLevy Donin said in his book To Pray as a Jew, “if I didn’t pray three times a day because I was commanded to, I wouldn’t know how to pray when I needed to.”  If you pray three times a day with the traditional liturgy, you will say the Amidah over 1000 times in one year.  You develop a familiarity with the words, with the themes, that allows them to work as a guided meditation.  But I do not recommend STARTING with saying the Amidah three times a day.  I recommend starting with a heavier focus on the spirit than on the ritual.  A great starting point is to say the Shema twice a day—even if it’s just the six words of Shema, Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.  If you say them twice a day, and really focus on the meaning—Hear, O Israel, Adonai is OUR God, Adonai is ONE—it can serve as a way to remind you of God’s presence in the world and in your life.

Of all the different types of Jewish meditation I’ve tried, the one that has most influenced my relationship with God is hitbodedut, a practice recommended by the great Chasidic rebbe, Nachman of Braslav.   Rebbe Nachman tells us “It is very good to pour out one’s thoughts before God, like a child pleading before its parent.”  He recommends simply talking to God, sharing with God what is in your heart in your own words as a spiritual practice. Hitbodededut literally means to be alone with yourself.  R. Nachman suggests spending an hour a day in hitbodedut.  If you don’t have an hour, try it for fifteen or twenty minutes.  I’ve found it to be a very profound experience.  And it’s important to set a timer, to make an effort to have an extended conversation. My experience with hitbodedut is that it starts out pretty shallow – if I’m having a good day, it’s thanks, if I’m having a bad day, it’s complaints – but after about five minutes I have to dig a little deeper to keep the conversation going, and that’s when the experience gets more interesting. It’s also a meditation that you can do conveniently at all kinds of times, for example while you’re driving in your car. In the last year some of the best conversations I’ve had with God have been on I-20 on my way to the Atlanta airport.

In addition to setting a time for talking to God, you can cry out to God whenever the spirit moves you: it can be a plea, like Moses’ plea on behalf of Miriam, or it can even be an argument or challenge, like Abraham challenging God when told that God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

What God wants – and what we need – is prayer that’s genuine, that’s real. That’s from the heart. That’s way more important than saying the “right” words. It’s like the story of a simple shepherd, who every day would offer his personal prayer to God:

“God, I love you so much, that if you were here, I would give you half of my sheep.  If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket with you.”  One day a great rabbi was walking by the field, and he heard the shepherd praying.  He ran up to him, and said “do you call that praying?  Are you kidding?  What would God do with your sheep?  Of what use would a blanket be to God?  Here, let me show you to pray properly before you further desecrate God’s holy name!”  The rabbi then got out a siddur, and gave a brilliant lecture on the structure and meaning of the various prayers, and explained what to say when to the poor illiterate shepherd.  As soon as the rabbi left, the shepherd sat there dumbfounded.  He didn’t understand a word of it.  But he knew the great rabbi was quite upset that his prayers were not proper.  So he stopped praying.

For too many of us, that’s where the story ends…fortunately for the shepherd, there IS more to HIS story…

Up in Heaven, God noticed the silence, and said “what happened to the beautiful prayers of my humble shepherd?”  He decided to send an angel down to go and find out what was wrong.  The angel found the shepherd, and the shepherd told him the whole story of his meeting with the rabbi.  The angel said, “what does that rabbi know?  Would you like to see how we pray in Heaven?”  The shepherd instantly agreed and the angel whisked him off to Heaven, where he saw a Heavenly Host standing and proclaiming: “God, I love you so much, that if you were here, I would give you half of my sheep.  If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket with you.”  The shepherd happily went back to his prayers, and God happily listened.

If the heart of prayer is this kind of simple crying out to God, why do we need a fixed liturgy at all?

At its best, the fixed service can help us in our efforts to connect with God.  Writing good religious poetry is truly an art.  Just as not all of us are concert musicians, not all of us can write Psalms as moving as the ones attributed to King David.  Just as hearing a beautiful concert can elicit certain feelings which reflect something in our own souls, saying beautiful words of prayer can do the same.

While we may all recite the same words in our prayers, they will resonate with us differently on different days.  I have found that often a set prayer can express a feeling better than my own words.  If I want to thank God for being with me, I might say something like “thanks, God, for being there for me.”  Yet when I recite Psalm 30, which reads “Lord, I cried out and You healed me.  You saved me from the pit of death.  Sing to the Lord you faithful, acclaiming his holiness.  His anger lasts for a moment; His love is for a lifetime” I feel the words of King David do a better job of capturing what I feel than my own simple words.

The prayer service is one long guided meditation.  It is designed to take us, in stages, through different aspects of our relationships with God, Israel, and Mankind.  We prepare ourselves for prayer with a warm-up, by reciting psalms.  We establish our relationship with God and recreate the revelation at Mt. Sinai when we say the Shema.  The Amidah is the peak of the service, when we strive to achieve devekut, a cleaving with God.  And we then have the closing part of the service, including Aleinu, as a way of gently taking leave, of cooling off, after an intense spiritual experience.  The structured service takes us on a spiritual journey.

So how do we use that fixed liturgy as a way to talk to God?

This goes back to the second thing I said could help in having a spiritual experience in the synagogue: having good kavanah, intention and focus, when you pray.

Being aware of God’s presence is the most fundamental principle in prayer.  It’s the point of prayer.  Inscribed in stone above the ark behind me are the words “da lifnei mi atem omdim,” a quote from the Talmud that means “know before whom you are standing.”  As you recite your prayers, if you can keep in mind that you are in the presence of God, the words will have an entirely different feeling.

But how do we achieve that knowledge?  Many books have been written on that subject, and all I can do this morning is give a few hints from within our tradition.

The Talmud tells us that a person should enter two doors into the synagogue, and then pray.  What is meant by two doors?  The distance of two door-widths.  One of the Chabad rebbes explained that this means when you enter the synagogue, you should truly enter—leaving your worries, concerns, and distractions outside.  When you come into the synagogue, use that physical transition as a reminder to make a spiritual transition—that you are now present in the House of God, and you are here to pray, to talk to God. Those of you who like to arrive at the start of services know that I like to use the chanting of mah tovu for that same purpose.

And how can you talk if you don’t know what you are saying?  If you don’t fully understand Hebrew, make frequent use of the translation.  The Hebrew language and the music may be majestic, but it won’t be true prayer if you don’t know what you are saying.  The Talmud tells us that a person can pray in any language he or she understands, as God is a polyglot who understands all languages.

Understanding the words helps, but by itself it’s not enough.  If it were, there would be no such thing as a secular Israeli.  The Kotzker rebbe tells us that “a little with spirit, with kavanah, is better than a lot without.”  Ten minutes of REAL praying, opening your heart to God and pouring out your dreams and fears before your Maker, will do more for you spiritually than four hours of sitting and being bored – OBVIOUSLY.  Find something in the prayerbook that speaks to you—whether it’s a prayer, a psalm, or a reading—and stay with it, think about it, apply it to your life.  Find words of religious poetry in that book that express what YOU feel.

One of the things that can help get us out of heads is music. When our visioning effort found more music to be a high priority for the congregation, I think it was an expression of a desire for more spirituality in our services. Since Sarah Metzger has joined us, every Friday night has more ruach, spirit.

I said earlier that prayer is about developing a relationship with God.  A relationship implies a two-way communication.  When we pray, we talk to God.  How do we hear God’s reply?  For Jews, the answer is studying Torah.  When we study the wisdom of our tradition—whether it is in the Torah, in the Talmud, or in the words of contemporary teachers—we are straining to hear the word of God.  It has been said “my cantor helps me talk to God, and my rabbi helps God talk to me.”

If you’d like to hear God talking, please join some of my adult education programs. In the coming months, the Thursday night Essential Judaism class will be exploring many topics, including theology and prayer. The classes are free, open to the public, and you can come for the whole course or just an individual class that interests you. Next week we’re meeting on Tuesday because of Sukkot – we’ll be exploring the question of “Who’s a Jew?” and the different approaches in the Jewish world to that question. The schedule is posted online. Once we’re past all the holidays – in November – I plan to offer some “Koffee and Kabbalah” sessions.

When I find it difficult to talk to God—if I’m distracted, or distant, or agitated—I find it comforting to know that even someone on as high a spiritual level as King David sometimes had trouble praying.  There is a line that we recite at the very beginning of every Amidah which King David said when he was having trouble praying: “Adonai, s’ftai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha,” God, open my lips and my mouth will recite your praises.  Sometimes the best way to start praying is to ask for God’s help in praying.

G’mar chatimah tovah

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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