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Rabbi Barry Leff Digest
Number 56  Date 092603

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Topics in this digest:  Rosh Hashana 1

One thousand, nine hundred and thirty four years ago today, on the first of Tishrei, on this holiday, Rosh Hashana, our ancestors—physical and spiritual—gathered on the top of a small hill with a grand name in the middle of Jerusalem.  There, on the top of Har Tzion, Mt. Zion, in the Temple that had been recently expanded and beautified by Herod the Great, a ritual that was already more than a thousand years old was acted out.

A huge crowd gathered—tens of thousands of people.  The priests acted out an elaborate ritual, sacrificing one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs, with meal offerings and wine offerings.  Some of the more sophisticated among the crowd might have wondered why  God, the Master of the Universe, wanted us to offer up a bar-b-que.  But our ancestors did it anyway.  They showed their love of God by giving up something of value, not really knowing what God might need or want.

Ten months later, on the ninth day of the month of Av, disaster struck: the Romans destroyed the Temple, the holiest place in Judaism, the ONLY place where the Torah allowed us to offer sacrifices that atone for our sins.  Jews were forbidden to even return to the LOCATION of the Temple.  There would be no sacrifices offered on Rosh Hashana in the year 70.

The nation was in shock.  The heart of the Jewish religion at that time was offering sacrifices.  What was to be done?

Over the course of the next few years, the rabbis came up with a totally radical and innovative solution, which redefined Judaism and the way that Jews relate to God.  The rabbis decided if we couldn’t offer physical sacrifices, we would offer spiritual sacrifices.  If we couldn’t offer sheep and pigeons, we would offer words.  The rabbis decided to replace the sacrificial animals with prayer, and they fixed the basic form of the main prayers that we recite today, and every day.

In a way, the rabbis’ scheme succeeded brilliantly.  And in a way, it has failed miserably.

It succeeded because here we are almost 2,000 years later, re-enacting that Temple ritual.  We gather in our temples, our synagogues, our shuls.  Our cantor takes the role of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, making offerings to God on behalf of the assembled multitude.  Our choir takes the place of the Levites who served and made music in the Temple.  There was a sense of mystery on that day long ago as the priests went through the elaborate rituals; there is a sense of mystery today, because most of us don’t understand the language of the ritual.

The rabbis’ scheme to substitute words for sacrifice succeeded.  But is it really prayer that we are offering today?  Or just a ritual, a sacrifice of time, reading empty words, but nothing more?

Are you really praying to God today?  Or are you just reading to yourself?  What does it mean to pray?  What is prayer, as distinct from mere reading?  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.  Today’s Haftorah, Hannah’s prayers for a child, are so moving that the rabbis in the Talmud used Hannah as a template to teach us how all of us should pray.  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:  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 Heschel 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—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 how did our prayers go from “a spontaneous call in need,” to “please turn to page 252?”  Even before the destruction of the Temple, there were some fixed prayers.  Tradition says that the Amidah, the central prayer of Judaism, goes back to the days of the Men of the Great Assembly in the 5th century BCE.Two thousand years ago, there was a greater emphasis on community than on individualism.  I speculate that the rabbis felt there were certain communal needs that were so important, they wanted everyone praying to God for them.  And when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, they strove to combine that spirit of crying out with the ritual that had been carried out in the Temple.

We all have that urge to cry out to God, at least occasionally.  Everybody is a spiritual seeker at some point in their lives.  Maybe it’s when confronted with disaster, or challenges.  At times, we all seek transcendence, something greater than ourselves.  We all wonder about God, at some times feel distant from God but wish we weren’t.  The word “spiritual” itself speaks to the issues at the heart of prayer.  Now some people cringe when they hear the word spiritual.  Sounds kind of New-Agey, dilettante, something for dabblers.  But I really like the word.  Spiritual is a combination of spirit and ritual.  And that is something VERY Jewish.  All “spirit,” no ritual, no context, could provide a passing pleasant feeling, but it will not provide a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.  All ritual and no spirit and your soul is deadened and you are distanced from God.

Yet all ritual and no spirit is where much of the Jewish world is today.  And that is where the rabbis failed when they substituted prayer for sacrifice—or perhaps it is where we, the people praying, have failed.  The result is the same, however.  I not infrequently have people talk to me about their problems with prayer.  They are disappointed because prayer doesn’t do anything for them.  As a people, we have forgotten how to pray.  How did this sorrowful state of affairs come about? 

There’s a story which I think explains what happened:  there was a king who loved music.  So he directed his musicians to play for him every morning.  The musicians performed to obey, but they also loved and respected the king, and they valued the chance to be in his presence.  Every morning they played for the king with enthusiasm and delight.  For many years things went well—the musicians enjoyed playing, and the king enjoyed listening.  The musicians eventually passed away, and their sons sought to take their place.  But the sons had not mastered the art, nor kept the instruments in proper condition.  They didn’t know the king so well, and no longer loved him so much.  They blindly followed the fathers’ custom of arriving each morning to perform, but the harsh sounds were so offensive to the king he stopped listening.

That’s where we are today.  We don’t know the king so well, and our instrument, the prayerbook, seems to be out of tune, and we don’t know how to play it anyway.  So instead of coming to the synagogue and having our souls soar in communion with God, we come and shmooze with our friends and look forward to lunch.  We sit back and appreciate the aesthetic of the ritual, but as observers, not participants.  Just look at the language the Jewish community uses in describing what we do on the holidays: we go to shul.  We talk about “synagogue attendance.”  We don’t talk about praying.

We Jews have gotten so disconnected from prayer that even some of our rabbis and scholars don’t “get” prayer. 

I earlier mentioned Psalm 102 which proclaims “A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint before God.”  A verse which speaks of prayer as an expression from within, a response to a person’s personal circumstance.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz, z”l, a great Israeli scientist and philosopher, points out that this is in direct opposition to prayer as we have it in the prayerbook—direct opposition to what we are doing here today.  Speaking of the prayerbook prayers, Leibowitz says “It is obligatory and fixed.  Consider what these two properties imply.  As obligatory, it is not what a person desires but what is demanded of him; not prayer initiated by him, but one imposed on him.  As fixed, it does not vary with the changing circumstances or states, objective or subjective, in which the praying individual finds himself.  Hence it does not reflect the state of mind or situation of the praying person.”  Leibowitz claims that since no two people have the exact same needs at a given time, it’s impossible that fixed prayer was designed to meet the spiritual needs of the person.  The person who was married the day before, and the person who buried his loved one the day before for the most part recite the same prayers.  What’s the sense in that?  So for Leibowitz, the sole purpose of prayer is to prove that you are kabbalat ohl shamayim, you accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.  You put aside your personal preferences to obey the commandment to pray in this fashion.  Therefore it is meaningless to even ask questions like “was your prayer spiritually moving?” or “is prayer effective?”  That’s not the point.  The point of prayer is simply to make a statement about your relationship with God.

What most of us find to be a great problem—a lack of a personally transcendent spiritual experience in prayer—Leibowitz finds to be a good thing.  He claims it reflects Judaism’s total indifference to the individual!  If so far today you have not been moved to tears in prayer, Leibowitz says, “don’t worry!  It’s not supposed to do anything for you!”

What a ridiculous statement!  Look, in Judaism we have enough mitzvot which are mysterious.  That have no obvious purpose.  Like the prohibition on wearing garments that contain a mixture of wool and linen.  What the heck is wrong with wool and linen?  But to take a commandment whose purpose IS obvious—prayer, which clearly is about communicating with God, in some way—and deny it, is such a shame as to be almost criminal!

Today is a perfect example of the problem we face in really praying.  Very few Jews in North America understand Hebrew.  I’m quite certain that fewer than 10% of the people here today understand the words we are saying.  Which means the service is largely incomprehensible, and at four and a half hours in length, it seems interminable.  The fact that some people WILL have a powerful spiritual experience today is far more surprising than the fact that most people do not.  It’s no surprise that most people come late, stay a little while—mostly for the ritual surrounding the Torah service and the sermon which is in English—and leave. 

So what’s to be done?  In that effort to balance spirit and ritual to achieve something spiritual, we need to focus on the spirit.  This, by the way, is not a new problem: in the Talmud, over 1500 years ago, the rabbis already debated the need to have spirit, (which they call kavannah, or intent) before the ritual prayers (which they call the keva, which means “fixed”).  Some rabbis insisted that you must have the spirit before engaging in the ritual.  Some rabbis wouldn’t pray for three days after returning from a trip, because they felt the burdens of the journey prevented them from having the proper spirit.  Obviously, those rabbis lost the argument, and the ones who said we have to perform the ritual, whether or not we have the spirit, won out.  But we need to go back to demanding of ourselves that we bring spirit to our ritual, that we have kavannah.

For many of us, instead of opening our hearts to prayer, Hebrew school had the effect of silencing our natural instinct to prayer.  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?

Being aware of God’s presence is the most fundamental principle in prayer.  It’s the point of prayer.  The Talmud relates that when R. Eliezer was dying, he told his students, “when you are praying, da lifnei mi atem omdim, 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.

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 understands, as God 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 kavannah, 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 is 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.

I said earlier that prayer is about creating a relationship with God.  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 Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.  If you say them twice a day, and really focus on the meaning—Hear, O Israel, Hashem is OUR God, Hashem is ONE—it can serve as a way to remind you of God’s presence in the world and in your life. 

I also recommend a practice that the great Chasidic rebbe, Rebbe Nachman of Braslav prescribed.   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.  This is a form of Jewish meditation called hitbodededut, which literally would mean 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 ten or fifteen minutes.  I’ve found it to be a very profound experience.  In addition to setting a time for talking to God, you can cry out to God whenever the spirit moves you: it can be plea, like Moses’ plea on behalf of Miriam, or it can even be an argument or challenge, like Abraham challenged God when told that God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

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.” 

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: “Hashem, 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.

Shana Tova

It is a great mitzvah to serve God with great joy, always...R. Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Barry Leff
Beth Tikvah Congregation
9711 Geal Road
Richmond, BC  V7E 1R4

phone: (604) 271-6262
fax: (604) 271-6270

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