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Rosh Hashanah 5784: Praying Is Hard

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Prayer is hard. No, that’s not right. Maybe I should say “to pray is hard.” But that’s not right, either. To pray with meaning and conviction is hard. That’s it. And that can be really hard.

During my now 18 years as an ordained rabbi, more than one person has told me that they can no longer pray the words of our siddur – or of any siddur or any machzor. These prayers depict an omnipresent all-knowing God who is the source of peace, healing, and goodness. And yet our world, they observe, is filled with war, illness, and evil. The best I can suggest is to understand our prayers as aspirational, describing the world as it could be, not as it is.

Historically, however, prayer in Judaism has served other functions. Prayer has provided a connection to the Divine, an opportunity to express gratitude, and the chance to ask for intervention. This final purpose has sustained our people for two millennia.

Consider for a moment, the prayer Mi Chamochah. The prayer celebrates the Israelites deliverance from Egyptian slavery. We pray it twice a day, traditionally, morning and evening. For nearly two thousand years, from the destruction of the Second Temple until modernity, this prayer has been the most important one for the Jewish people. Not the Sh’ma, not the Amidah, not the Aleinu. But Mi Chamochah. Why? Simply put, for our non-American ancestors – whether two generations back or twenty-five generations back – life was awful. Sometimes it was less awful than others, but it was always awful. Our people were subject to shunnings, land owning barriers, profession barriers, beatings, forced conversions, the Crusades, destructions of synagogues, restrictions on where they lived and what they did, blood libels, pogroms, expulsions, Talmud burnings, the Holocaust, of course, and so much more. Mi Chamochah expresses adoration to God for the past redemptive action of freeing the Israelites from slavery, and a present command to God to bring on another, albeit messianic, future redemption. Through this prayer, Mi Chamochah, our ancestors held onto hope. The misery of their time could end if God so chose it to end, just as God had ended the misery endured by our ancestors enslaved in Egypt.

As Biblical scholar Marc Brettler writes, “The climactic hope for a new Exodus … is given in the future (“Adonai will reign forever and ever”). This alternation of tenses reinforces the theme ... that the promised new redemption will mimic the past one. Indeed, it will occur not in the distant future, but in the near present as all time periods – past, present, and future – converge.

And it wasn’t just am ha-aretz – the ordinary, everyday Jew who made demands on God in Mi Chamochah. As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman adds, “... The Rabbis insist on a moral God who enters history to right wrongs and bring about a better age.”

Asking God to intervene may have sustained our ancestors, but with rare exception, it does little for us today. We are religious descendants of rationalist theologians who founded the Reform Jewish movement to move us away from what they felt was magical wishful thinking. As we rejected the intervening God, many of us rejected God completely. I was confronted with this more than 20 years ago.

In 1999, when I was applying to rabbinical school, I also applied to the Wexner Foundation to be named a Wexner Graduate Fellow during my years in seminary. I made it to the last round, and was flown to New York City for my final, in-person, interview. I sat in a huge conference room with prominent rabbis and scholars of every Jewish denomination staring at me. Finally, Rabbi J.J. Schacter, a historian of intellectual trends in Orthodox Judaism, a University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, and a Senior Scholar at Yeshiva University, turned to me and said: “I am an Orthodox Jew. When I go to services to pray, I feel disconnected from God, and I am lonely. Counsel me.”

It was an April day, and it was snowing. I remember glancing outside, turning to Rabbi Schacter, and saying, “We look out the window and we see that it is snowing, despite the fact that the calendar reads April. And yet we know that there is a scientific explanation for why it is snowing on this spring day.

“The same cannot be said for God. Science cannot explain the presence of God in our world, the feeling of connection to God, or a belief in God. All of that takes faith. And faith is really hard. Some might even say it’s unnatural. But I am less concerned with your lack of connection to God than I am with your loneliness. If you don’t feel that connection to the Divine, do you feel it with other people? Can they help you feel less lonely?”

(As an aside, I received the fellowship, and was later told that my answer to that question sealed it for me.)

When giving my answer to Rabbi Schacter, I was in no place to inject humor. If I had thought otherwise, I might have told this old joke about Mr. Bernstein. He dutifully comes to synagogue every Shabbat and stays for the entire service. But he drives the rabbi crazy because he spends his time talking to his neighbor, Ms. Schwartz, not praying or paying attention. Finally, when the rabbi can no longer take, he approaches Bernstein after the service has ended. He says, “Bernstein, I appreciate your coming each week and helping to make a minyan. But you spend the entire service talking to Schwartz. What gives?” And Bernstein answers, “Schwartz comes here to talk to God, and I, I come here to talk to Schwartz.”

There is much wisdom and truth in Bernstein’s words. You have perhaps heard me say that there is no one Hebrew word that means “synagogue.” To say “synagogue” in Hebrew you have to say beit t’filah, beit midrash, and beit k’nesset – house of worship, house of study, and house of gathering. There is no shame in coming to synagogue services for what feels like the sole purpose of gathering with other Jews. But sometimes, whether we realize it or not, we seek more. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi, has this to say about praying, actually singing, Mi Chamochah:

... When we sing these words each day, we’re called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember, and you get re/member – to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamochah is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.

Remembering and memory are powerful parts of Jewish prayer. We experience them not only in Mi Chamochah, but also in the Mourners’ Kaddish at the yahrtzeit, the anniversary, of someone’s death, and why we hold four Yizkor, memorial services, each year. Remembering and memory are also intrinsic to the first prayer of the Amidah, what we call the Avot, when we invite God to remember our patriarchs and matriarchs and then to ask God to hold us as God held them.

Rabbi Shai Held suggests the Avot prayer gives us one other reason to pray: to allow us to be vulnerable. When we offer the words ha-eil hagadol hagibor v’hanorah – the great, mighty, and awesome God – words that in the Torah follow with “God who upholds the cause of the orphan and widow and who loves the stranger,” we are exposing our vulnerabilities, because we have been reassured that God takes care of the vulnerable.

And, as Rabbi Barenblat reminds us, prayer, especially when we sing, is something we can feel in our bodies. Research suggests that singing can help boost immunity and lung function, enhance memory, improve mental health, and help a person cope with physical and emotional pain. Singing also lowers cortisol levels and relieves tension. When people sing, endorphins and oxytocin are released by the brain, which in turn lowers stress and anxiety levels. One of the best things about singing, too, is that a person doesn’t have to be good at it to reap its rewards.

Singing also joins us as a community. I remember many a Reform movement biennial convention when the 5,000 attendees together sing the Sh’ma or Mi Chamochah or any of the services’ prayers. It’s an experience unlike any other and immediately connects a person to the other 4,999 people in the room. We become one – one in experience, one in community, and one in faith. If I could, I’d like to bring Rabbi Schacter to such an event to help cure his loneliness.

Leo Fuchs, who serves as one of the many rabbis at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco asked this question when reflecting on Mi Chamochah: “How do our personal prayers for ourselves and our families link to our prayers for our communities?” In other words, reciting prayers is not only about being in community, but it’s also about being of community. He continues:

“Perhaps in the Mi Chamochah, just before we transition to our personal prayers of request in the Amidah, we are meant not just to be grateful that we are free and that God freed us, but also to think hard about what we will do with our freedom. What will we make of the precious gift of our lives and freedom to make choices?” And I would add: How will we use that freedom to make our world a better place for all of God’s creatures? How can we use our experience as slaves to help the enslaved people of the world today?

Mishkan Tefilah, our regular Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayers and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One of the poems included as an alternative to the prayer in the Amidah about Shabbat, was written by Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate in 1930 to practice law because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. He wrote, words that I rarely read on Shabbat because they are a call to action on Shabbat, the following:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied.

Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred.

Wake us, O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half-forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears.

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living, and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice, and reality.

Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.

The Jewish Kabbalists, as interpreted by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Professor Nehemia Polen, offer a similar message through what they see as the real meaning of Mi Chamochah, the first four words of which – mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai –may be translated as “Who is like You among the gods, Adonai!” For the Kabbalists, they say, the word mi is not an interrogative “who,” but another name for God. And ba-eilim “among the gods” can also be read as bet ilan or “two trees.” So now the Mi Chamochah reads not as a question but as a statement: “‘God is two trees,” which they explain to mean the tree of life which is ayin, “nothingness,” and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which is yesh, “something.”

The words continue, nedar bakodesh, nora t’hilot, oseih fele, “adorned in holiness, revered in praise, worker of miracles.” Rabbi Kushner and Professor Polen add, “And when we balance our power to act, our self-assertion, our yesh, our something, with the humility of being selfless, ayin, nothing, then we too can perform wonders. And this is redemption.” Perhaps this is what Rabbi Fisher is calling us to when he writes, “Disturb us, Adonai.”

As I said at the opening of my words this morning, to pray with meaning and conviction is hard. And yet, here we are, in this synagogue, having just sat through a multi-hour prayer service. We are here for many reasons. Maybe to talk to our neighbors. Maybe for an endorphin rush. Maybe to feel urged on in our social justice work.

And maybe we pray because it’s what people do – we pour out our hearts and long to sense or hear or feel an answer. As the modern Hebrew writer Micah Joseph Berdyczewski once wrote:

It is not we alone who pray;

all things pray.

All things pour forth their souls.

The heavens pray, the earth prays,

every creature and every living thing prays.

In all life, there is longing.

Creation itself is but a longing,

a prayer to the Almighty.

What are the clouds, the rising and the setting of the sun,

the soft radiance of the moon, and the gentleness of the night?

What are the flashes of the human mind

and the storms of the human heart?

They are all prayers —

the outpouring of boundless longing for God.

And maybe, just maybe, we pray because it’s still what Jews do. It’s an act of courage and of faith. By showing up for prayer, we are daring to challenge a world that tells us that praying is wrong when done by anyone other than white conservative Christians. We defy the message that haters have tried to send when they have inflicted violence on our houses of worship: the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, aka Mother Emanuel; the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas; the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; Chabad of Poway, California; and others. We pray because prayer represents hope and is the outward reflection of our internal commitment to make our world, someday, somehow, some way, the world we envision it to be.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah. Let’s keep praying.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784