Yom Kippur sermon for Congregation Neveh Shalom
September 23, 2015
A Hebrew school teacher is making the rounds in her second grade classroom, inspecting the young students’ High Holiday artwork. Some are drawing shofars, some are drawing apples and honey, some are making cards that say “I’m sorry.” The teacher leans over one particular desk as a little girl is scribbling intensely, and she asks what the girl is drawing. The girl says, “It’s a picture of God.” The teacher, seizing every open opportunity to turn a situation into a lesson, says, “But we don’t know what God looks like.” The little second grader, without taking her eyes off her paper, keeps scribbling and says, “You will in a minute.”
If I asked you what prayer looks like, there would probably be just as many answers as there’d be if I asked you what God looks like. That is because prayer is different for everyone. I’m not just talking about the experience for davener versus congregant, or conservative service versus reform service. I mean the concept of prayer leaves plenty of room for everyone’s ideas and notions as to what that entails.
And not only is it different for everyone, it changes throughout the year. Case in point: the Days of Awe. We’ve made it to the second of the three big fall holidays. By now our total running time in services since Erev Rosh Hashanah is somewhere around 15 hours, and we have easily double that left between now and the end of Sukkot. Don’t worry, I’m not going for any Guinness records for sermon length. The point is the liturgy is different now, and your personal prayers and the feeling you have when you pray at this time of year might be different as well. Which leads me to the question: How many of you have an amazing experience every time you “pray”? Do all of your prayers feel generally the same, or does it fluctuate based on season or prayer substance? I don’t want to spend too much time talking about what we should pray for. That’s a whole other sermon, and to be honest I don’t have any of my Tim Tebow notes with me. Today I want to focus on what it feels like for you to pray and how to take this thing we engage in multiple times per day and make each time feel like its own experience with purpose and intention.
I’ll start with a little of my own personal background to give you some examples. I have always loved services. But prayer for me, especially over the last decade or so, has had major ups and downs. When I started rabbinical school, my father, who had a lifetime of health challenges, wound up in the hospital right before Rosh HaShanah. Of course I went home to Michigan because they weren’t sure what would happen. That started a roller coaster of emotions that took me on a pretty unpleasant ride each time he was in the hospital after that. And it changed prayer for me. Long before my father had been seriously ill, I had understood the feelings behind praying for healing, for strength, for love, and for the benefit of others. But in 2007, after a year of his trips in and out of the hospital, my relationship with God changed, and my relationship with prayer changed. I could no longer pray for healing – it seemed like wasted energy. Instead, I simply prayed to know what would happen.
The roller coaster ran off the rails that summer; my grandfather died in July, and exactly four weeks later on August 19th, my father died. My prayers had residual momentum that carried me to the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, but after that I was done. Prayers that previously had incredible meaning now felt like nothing. I would just sit with my siddur closed on my lap.
. . .
There’s a tradition with the Shema that many of you have probably heard before. Some people have the custom of taking a full complete breath for every word in the prayer. It sounds like this:
You get the idea. There are several reasons for this. One is that because the Shema is the central tenet of Judaism, there is much meaning packed into these words, and they each need their own sentence. There’s also the idea that we need time to lose ourselves in prayer, and turning these words of Torah into a mantra of sorts helps us accomplish that. Praying, especially a prayer like the Shema, should feel different than the way we usually talk or even the way we usually think.
The Shema is supposed to be the last thing that a Jew says, the final words, the final affirmation of belief in God and our traditions. Most people never get the chance to have this final moment in time, but my papa – my grandfather – had this chance. Twenty-eight days after he said the Shema and took his final breath, I sat with my father at his bedside as he took his final breaths. He wasn’t conscious, his strength had gone, but I sat with him, and said the Shema. As I later journaled about this experience, I affirmed for him (and me) that singular expression of faith. It was something that he himself had long ago explained to me was a legacy we as Jews couldn’t ignore and a destiny we couldn’t change. But somewhere in the mourning process, prayer felt foreign. I found myself thrust into this strange place where not only did prayer seem fruitless because my father died, it had lost all meaning. And remember this was right in the middle of rabbinical school, where I was supposed to be training to teach others how to find meaning in prayer.
So how did I get the meaning back? Writing about it, crying about it, talking about it. I had a teacher who reminded me that it isn’t mandatory to say all the words in the siddur. If I could just open the siddur and say one word, that would be sufficient. There’s a Grand Canyon sized difference between honestly and earnestly using a single word to express your prayer and saying all the words on the page when they feel empty.
That first word didn’t come right away. I started to just sit in services with the siddur closed on my lap. It was second nature to open it up, but following along wouldn’t have meant anything. Instead, I forced myself to acknowledge the change that had happened, the change in the way it felt to pray. And then I learned this text:
Praying Without Expectation- Talmud Bavli 32b
(Case 1) R. Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, And I prayed unto the Lord, and it is written afterwards, And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.
Basically, it isn’t the length of the prayer that counts, but the purpose of it.
(Case 2) But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Yohanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, Hope deferred makes the heart sick? What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, But desire fulfilled is a tree of life; and the tree of life is naught but the Torah, as it says, She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!
And here we learn you can’t pray for immediate action, but rather for courage, understanding, or direction.
Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.
Again, it’s the idea that prayer is not about the physical rewards, not even always the content at all, but about the feeling you have when you pray.
It’s cliché to say “life is about the journey” – the real sentiment should be that by making the journey meaningful and enjoyable, you’ve given your life meaning and joy. And the same is true for prayer. There’s a performing arts group in Dallas that has had the same motto for the last several decades. It’s not on their brochures or their website, but when a show director wants to convey the power and purpose of the journey, he tells his performers, “Hard work is fun when improvement is evident.” Prayer is most meaningful, most beneficial, not when the result is getting what you asked for, but when it’s giving you a purpose and focus you didn’t have before.
So what was the one word that got me back? What was the one phrase that refocused my Judaism after this emotional Jenga puzzle came crashing down in front me? I’m sure you know by now . . . it was the Shema. It’s the last prayer we say and the first prayer we teach. In fact it’s still pretty new to Shiri, but I remember the first time on her own she held up her little fingers and covered her eyes when she heard the Shema sung at services. We beamed at her, and she beamed back with the pride of learning what she was supposed to do. Now she’s starting to learn bits and pieces of other prayers and blessings (what can I say, she’s a rabbi’s kid) but for a while, the Shema was the only prayer she could say.
In the late summer of 2007, the Shema was the only prayer I could open my mouth to say. As I wrote then, “It is the utterance of those six words that place me in a moment in time that I will forever cherish. It is these six words that reaffirm my belief in God, in man, and in myself. I will understand it one day, I will hear the world around me, I will find God in my daily life.” When I arrive at the High Holidays, I find myself in a unique conundrum. On the one hand, the notion of prayer and introspection for a dedicated number of days excites me; it feels like a mandate to take an accounting of myself and really listen to my heart. On the other hand, I’m a doer, and the thought of all of these hours spent stationary feels anything but productive. More than that though, these days call into question my personal relationship with prayer. Prayer is not always easy, and probably shouldn’t be.
There have been other times for me when I struggled with prayer not because of some spiritual blockage, but because the words themselves just didn’t flow naturally. Part of my time in rabbinical school included chaplaincy at a hospital back in Michigan. It was my job to sit and pray with patients, and only a small number of them were Jewish. So most of them wanted to hear Christian prayers, the ones they grew up with and knew from church.
Luckily I had the benefit of brilliant rabbi teachers, one of whom insisted we open each class with an extemporized prayer, and we would rotate through the class and have each student take a turn giving the prayer on a particular day. Including me, there were two students in this class. Needless to say, I got a lot of prayer experience that semester.
My goal today was to share my own experiences as a way of opening the door to a wide variety of things prayer can be for you. Prayer isn’t always about changing the world, but it is always about connecting with yourself, doing it over and over again, and about having the patience to wait.
. . .
Before we move on to Yizkor, I’ll share some some passages that I meditated on that reopened my conversation with God, and maybe they’ll do the same for you. Here is an example from one of my favorite prayers, D’ror Yikra, which is traditionally sung around the Shabbat table. I started by breaking down the words, which read: “Shema Koli B’yom Ekrah.” Hear my voice on the day that I call.
SHEMA: Hear. Hear the thoughts I can’t speak out loud, hear my heart’s deepest desires. Sometimes we pray because we can’t verbalize our thoughts; prayer is our private meditation space with God, and for God to listen, we also have to listen to ourselves.
KOLI: Think about your voice. What is it that you and only you can offer to the world? That is your personal prayer, your voice, and no one else can do it for you.
B’YOM: “On the day” is in the moment. You can have regular prayer and still make it fluid, not fixed or static. If prayer represents the innermost thoughts in your heart, then it’s going to change based on your mood, based on your needs. It can be as simple as thank you or please. It can be focused on individual growth or about what you specifically need to call out to God. Your prayer today doesn’t have to be your prayer tomorrow. Open yourself anew each day, and search for one new thing to share. Maybe it’s a hope for the day, a thank you for yesterday, or a goal you need extra support to accomplish.
EKRAH: I will call out. Allow yourself to call out, to let go of your inhibitions, and enter into the relationship with prayer that puts your everything out there. I’m not just talking vocally, but emotionally. Think about it – how can there be “shema” – listening – without something to listen to?
Our relationships with God change, always, and no matter how far out God and prayer can feel, there is always a way back in. For me, it still isn’t always easy to pray, but the meaning comes each day as I remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect, that God listens even when the siddur is closed. Find your voice, listen to your heart, change it up a bit, but mostly, be open to that experience. As we stand here on the brink of the moment of judgement, may we find our minds as open as the midbar, the wilderness, to the feeling of prayer, even if it’s just a word at a time.