Rosh HaShanah 5778, Thursday AM, September 21, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
The old wooden yeshiva building in the Polish shtetl had caught on fire. Students and rabbanim were running around like crazy trying to find water to put it out. There was total chaos as the afternoon wore on. Finally the Rosh Yeshiva, spying people running here and there, and the fire continuing to burn, shouted, Stop! Everyone froze. Don’t just do something! Davven Minha!
Seems today the whole world is on fire. We have been told that Hurricane Harvey was a once in a thousand year occurrence, though if you know people who have been flooded out of their homes every year for the last three years, as I do, that hyperbole is meaningless. It was followed by two more hurricanes that were catastrophic and unheard of. But the head of the EPA, that is the Environmental Protection Agency, continues to dismiss the scientists and others working on climate change issues. The psychopath dictator of North Korea has developed hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles that may be capable of carrying them. And our diplomacy on the issue is done via Twitter. The President of the United States ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, and now almost 1 million young people who have grown up in the United Stated, knowing no other country as home, perhaps not speaking any language but English since their parents brought them as babies or small children into this country illegally are in danger of being deported to unknown lands, unless the most dysfunctional Congress in history can create legislation to help them. The same president as we know referred to some of the people marching under Nazi flags and shouting racist and anti-Semitic epithets to be very fine people. The Russian government appears to have successfully undermined our last election and continues to pursue efforts at causing election chaos. Yet another attempt by Congress to take away health care from 18-25 million people is under way and Equifax, one of the credit bureaus charged with protecting credit information of millions of Americans was hacked because it turns out they weren’t really taking the concerns of security experts all that seriously. But don’t worry, if you want to know if your information was hacked, click on the link in the email and all you need to do is give them your social security number.
It’s been one heck of a year since last Rosh HaShanah hasn’t it?
Now the punch line of the joke I began with is that in the midst of chaos, the rabbi wants his followers to stop and pray. But isn’t the joke on us? I mean the world is burning around us, literally if you live in the West, and his solution – Just pray – is literally what we are going to be doing for hours and hours over the next 10 days.
What is the point of prayer when the world is falling apart?
The author of psalm 27, the psalm we recite twice a day from the month of Elul through the holiday season, saw a connection:
Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident. One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.
His confidence would not dim even as danger surrounded him, as long as he could worship God in the Temple. Art Green, the theologian and scholar of Jewish mysticism, wrote: Religion begins not with doctrine, not with tradition, but with the need to pray. Or in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel his teacher, "To Judaism the purpose of prayer is not to satisfy an emotional need. Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity an act that constitutes the very essence of (being human)." (Quest for God, p78) An ontological necessity. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being and existence. You know the NPR show with Krista Tippet On Being? Heschel is saying they could have called the show On Prayer. That is how strong the link between existence and worship is.
According to Heschel and Green, when the world is falling apart, that is, davka, when we most need to express our humanity in prayer. Don’t do something, davven minha!
But why? Why should prayer be so crucial to our lives at this time? It’s so passive. It’s so self-indulgent. It’s so boring.
“To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” So wrote Heschel in his wonderful book on the essence of worship, Quest for God. True prayer helps us recognize how remarkable it is to be alive.
The first prayer we utter in the morning -
Praised are you O Lord for creating the human person with wisdom. It is miraculous that we can function at all. When one considers how intricate the human body is, how many things can go wrong, the smallest malfunction can cause horrible distress and yet for most of us, most of the time, it does not. The Blessing ends Rofeh kol basar umaflee l’asot Who heals all flesh and causes wonder in action umaflee l’asot - the word maflee means to create wonder.
This blessing initiates a way of accessing the world around us. From the moment sleep lifts from our eyes we are encouraged to be on the lookout for the sublime, the amazing, the exquisite. How glorious the sunshine, how delightful the breeze, how exquisite the helpfulness of the person who served me my morning coffee.
I have told the following story many times. When my teacher Rabbi Bill Lebeau was sitting for his interview to enter rabbinical school, Rabbi Heschel was on the committee. Rabbi Lebeau had answered a question about his belief in God. And it was Rabbi Heschel’s turn to ask a question. “Mr. Lebeau did you in fact see God this morning?” Rabbi Lebeau assumed that Dr. Heschel was making fun of him and putting him in his place. Who was Bill Lebeau to be speaking so confidently about belief in God before these scholars? Rabbi Lebeau answered that no, he had not seen God that morning. “Well, tell me what you did do this morning”. Now Rabbi Lebeau is thinking this is not going well and maybe he should have applied to dental school. But gamely he reviewed how he took the train, he bought breakfast, he mentioned some of the people he had seen walking to the seminary. He finished his review and Heschel looked at him and said, “Ah but Mr. Lebeau I thought you said you had not seen God this morning?”
Prayer opens us to wonder and the surprise of living but we have to be open to it, we have to be willing to look.
Zochreinu L’hayim Melekh Hafetz baHayim -Remember us for life You Sovereign who desires Life. We recite this interpolation in the first blessing of the Amidah prayer for all 10 days of Repentance. Let’s just pause for a moment – what does it mean that the Ruler of the Universe desires Life? Perhaps it means this: each morning as we awake, following the blessing for our body, we recite Elohai neshama “the soul that you have given me is pure...You watch over it when it is in me. In the future You will take it from me but then restore it to me in the world to come.” God desires life so much that even after we die, at some point God will restore that life to us.
Or perhaps it is a directive - God desires life so we must insure that we create a sustainable society with life as the most precious of values.
This is another value of prayer - as Heschel says, “Prayer teaches us what to aspire to... Prayer implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish. Redemption, purity of mind and tongue or willingness to help may hover as ideas before our mind, but the idea becomes a concern, something to long for, a goal to be reached, when we pray “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and the in the face of those who curse me, let my soul be silent.”
Oh that we might attain the virtue of patience and tolerance! How many of us know this to be a personal deficiency and yet we long for that ability. On this day we acknowledge in the piyut L’el Orekh Din: “L’mohel avonot badin – God pardons sins while sitting in Judgment”. If God can be patient with a world of sinners, perhaps we can work at being patient with our spouses, our children, our co workers. According to Moses Cordovero in his ethical work Tomer Devorah, God’s patience and tolerance allows God to wait and wait for us to do teshuvah. Likewise, instructs Rabbi Cordovero, this is the extent to which he should be tolerant. Even if one is aggrieved, let the injured party be patient and trust in the transgressor’s ability to do teshuvah. If God can pardon our sins, do we not owe it to others to forgive them?
Treating people with kindness and love is a quality that the most saintly among us achieve with regularity. We are reminded of that virtue every day of the year, in every worship experience, when we recite the opening blessing of the Amidah. “Praised are You Who repays great love and kindness to those who act lovingly and compassionately.” Moses Cordovero understands this trait of the divine to be God’s ability to locate even within a mediocre person some wonderful and benevolent trait and highlight this positive trait over their shortcomings. Likewise he writes if there is a person who irritates you or whose actions anger you, look for a positive trait within them, perhaps they are generous, or benevolent to others and let that be sufficient for you to nullify your anger and have a positive feeling towards the other and say ”It is enough for me that he has this good quality”. In this way we link our aspirations with Divine traits.
On this day when we celebrate the birth of the world we express our yearning for universal harmony in a paragraph we add to the Kedushah blessing of the Amidah on Rosh HaShanah, “And therefore imbue all your creatures with reverence for You and all that You have fashioned with awe of You... and unite us in one fellowship to do Your will wholeheartedly”.
This confirms a desire we express daily in the Aleynu prayer that the world be repaired under God’s unified vision:L’taken olam b’malchut Shadai- Tikkun Olam.
But there is another aspect to prayer that goes beyond its language. In 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan and in particular a small town Osuchi. 30 foot waves wiped out the entire city. 6 years later the town is still attempting to recover. A year before the tsunami hit a citizen of Osuchi Itaroo Suzaki had been struggling with the loss of a dear cousin. To deal with the absence of his beloved cousin, he came up with an ingenious way to stay in touch. He purchased an old fashioned phone booth, the kind that used to dot city streets before cell phones made them obsolete, and stuck it in his garden. It was square, painted white with glass window panes and inside was a black rotary phone resting on a shelf. The phone is connected to nothing. But that did not matter to Itaroo. He just needed a quiet place where he could sit and talk to his cousin. “Because my thoughts could not be expressed on a regular phone line,” he explained to reporters, “I wanted them to be carried on the wind”. He called it the wind telephone.
Soon after the tsunami, word got out about the wind telephone that you could use to speak to those who were gone. Beyond the many known dead, there were over 400 residents still missing. Soon people starting showing up randomly on his property and walking right into the phone booth. This has been going on for five years and it is estimated that thousands of people have come to use his phone. Itaroo gave permission to have the conversations recorded by a news station and This American Life radio show shared some of these conversations. What is most remarkable is how individuals open up their hearts and share their deepest concerns and hopes to their loved ones over this telephone that is not connected to anything but the wind. In Hebrew the word for wind is also the word for spirit. We don’t have a telephone booth in our backyards with a black rotary phone connected to nothing. But we do have a spirit phone – every day we can open our hearts to share our greatest concerns and hopes, our fears and our gratitude not to deceased relatives but to the Spirit Who is all life. This is prayer at its most real.
The word for prayer in Hebrew is Tefilah. The source for the word is disputed. One possible explanation sees the word’s root meaning as ‘judgment’. l’hitpalel would be self reflective – self-judgment. In some scriptural passages the root word appears to mean ‘to intercede on behalf of’ [1Sam 2:25] or to mean “to be conscious of” [Gen. 48:11].
The root word for prayer then has two diametrically opposite meanings. On the one hand, it is inward looking and on the other it looks outward.
If its source indicates self-reflection, then as Joseph Albo, the medieval author of the philosophical work Ikarim , explains “The real purpose of praying is not to attempt to change the will of God but to bring about a change in the person him or herself.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook stated that prayer releases the goodness within us.
However if l’hitpalel looks outward than prayer speaks to relationship and a concern for the other. Heschel wrote that self-expression was not a goal of prayer but rather creating relationship with One who is greater than the self. “What is the self,” he argued, “that we should idolize it?”
This brings us back to the brokenness of the world. Prayer allows us to become healers and to become healed. We find dignity within ourselves by having a daily recital of our highest aspirations and sensitizing us to the world’s wonder. But it leads outward as well to interceding and caring about that world. When Abraham Joshua Heschel, returned from walking in the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, he wrote how ‘I felt a sense of the Holy in what I was doing... Even without words our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” And with this he taught us that action, protest, working for justice are themselves a form of worship, at least as important – and sometimes more so – as the traditional recitation of a fixed liturgy.
There is a midrash that tells of the significance of Abraham’s entrance into the world. "And God said to Abraham: 'Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father's house...'" (Genesis 12:2) -- To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: "Is it possible that the palace has no owner?" The owner of the palace looked out and said, "I am the owner of the palace." Likewise Abraham our father said, "Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?" God looked out and said to him, "I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe."
In the Hebrew original, the word for burning is doleket. Doleket can mean burning but it can also mean radiant. The world that we live in is both. It is radiant with sublime beauty, a wondrous remarkable world of kindness and concern, sacrifice and love. But it is also burning. Hatred, violence, selfish greed, and blindness to suffering have set the beautiful edifice that God created aflame.
Prayer is an avenue that links us to the owner of the palace. In this coming year may we strive to make prayer a daily feature of our lives. May our prayers help us to recognize the radiance of the world and spur us to action to put out the fires.