Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – Yom Kippur 5779


This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur, September 19, 2018. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

Last year I opened my Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the movie Moana. I mentioned that the music was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created Hamilton, but that I had not yet been fortunate enough to see Hamilton. Well, a lot can happen in a year. I’m going to say upfront this sermon is about Hamilton. But not the man, the musical, because – hear me out – they’re not really the same thing. Hamilton didn’t become a sensation and win 11 Tonys because it was about the secretary of the treasury. Hamilton is really about leaving a legacy. It’s about how we tell our stories.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That’s the final song. It has a little Unetaneh Tokef in it, doesn’t it? Who lives, who dies, who by water, who by fire.

I know my timing for this sermon seems a little off since the musical has been around since 2015. I’ll give you a little background as to why I’m just now making this connection this year. I was late to the Hamilton bandwagon, which may be surprising if you know I love musicals. I love going to musicals. I married into a family of theater buffs. For Duncan’s parents, a successful trip to New York means 7 plays in 6 days.

Perhaps I didn’t let myself get sucked into the hype for this very reason. On top of that, I was one of the few people who didn’t start listening to the cast album years before I saw the show. I didn’t want to fall in love and become obsessed with something there was little chance of me seeing live any time soon.

Then I got the text message. Good friends who asked nonchalantly, “Are you busy on April 8 in the evening?” Maybe you’re aware – I keep somewhat of a crazy schedule. But it just so happened we were free. I responded, “Yes, why?” “We have 2 extra tickets to Hamilton, be our dates?” And suddenly my obsession was set free.

My plan was to catch up and listen to the music beforehand to get a sense of the movement of the show. So that’s what I did as I prepared for Passover. I had no idea just listening to the music of this story of one of our founding fathers would bring me to tears.

The musical Hamilton is essentially a biography of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, told from the years 1776 when Hamilton arrived in New York, through Hamilton’s death in 1804. It covers the work that became his lasting legacy on America. And it was the final reprise song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who tells your story” that spoke to me as I listened and prepared the matzo balls.

The stories of who we are that are told after we’re gone depend on how we’re viewed when we’re here. Now, for most of us, it won’t be history telling the story, but it will be anyone who knew us. And if you want to leave a legacy, you have to create that legacy while you’re alive. Aaron Burr, who ultimately kills Hamilton in a duel, laments that although he won the duel, he’s the one who’s the villain of the story.

In the next to last song, Burr sings:

Death doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

History obliterates

In every picture it paints

It paints me and all my mistakes

When Alexander aimed

At the sky

He may have been the first one to die

But I’m the one who paid for it

The story we hear is because of the way history chose to tell the story.  

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. There I was in the kitchen, preparing the traditional culinary story of freedom from bondage, as I listened to the story of America’s freedom. And what I realized as I was cooking is that I was telling my own story through the work of my hands.  I realized Passover isn’t just the Exodus story. It’s my story that I tell through recipes my parents and grandparents passed down to me. My story is the continuation of each of their stories. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story.

Once I listened to it, I wasn’t surprised at all that I got hooked and immediately started seeing the Jewish connections. Life stories just have a way of doing that – they grab me. For most people the The Diary of Anne Frank was required reading at some point, but for me it was one of the first books I remember reading over and over again. I remember reading each entry and imagining myself there with her. I was sharing that experience. Even with historical fiction like The Red Tent or Rashi’s Daughters, I felt closer to my own story through these narratives. When an author is able to tell the story of someone’s life in a way that makes you feel as though your were lifelong friends with that person, that’s magic.

It’s no wonder that I became a rabbi. I fell in love with reading the same story – I’ve read it 36 times now – and understanding in layer after layer how I was connected to the Torah. And for me, as a rabbi and a parent, practically my whole life is about legacy – the one I’ve inherited and the one I want to leave.

When I’m giving a d’var Torah on the week’s parshah, part of my job as I see it is to connect the Torah in some way to our story today. Each portion, each holiday has its own narrative that can resonate with our own relationships. When I officiate at a funeral, my primary job is to help tell the story. When I sit with a family, I learn about a person’s legacy told through their childhood, courtship, career, family life, ambitions. And it’s the people who are left to remember you, the ones you leave the legacy to, they craft the story.

A famous Jewish story tells us of the man who was planting a carob tree and was interrupted by an onlooker who asks, “Why are you planting a carob tree? It takes 70 years to grow, you’ll never even enjoy it.” The man responds, “I have great memories eating dried carob as a child on Tu B’shevat. Those carob trees were planted by people who wanted to leave a gift for the generations to come. I am planting this tree as a gift for the generations who will be living seventy years from now. Then they can enjoy eating carob on Tu B’Shevat, too. Just as my parents and grandparents planted trees for me, so I plant trees for my children and grandchildren.”

Lin Manuel Miranda also uses a version of this teaching in Hamilton, with the line:

Legacy. What is a legacy?

It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see

What you do, who you were, and how you are remembered are tied together through connections you’ve made throughout your lifetime. In this season of introspection, we are called to examine our own story. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite during Musaf of the High Holidays, reminds us that our lives are finite. We are not immortal. The way we will all leave this world remains to be seen, but our stories, the marks we make in the world, will be measured by teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah.

Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but it really means to return, to look back and then turn forward. Our story is told in part by the ways in which we learn from our mistakes, and not only change our behavior, but teach others to do the same.  

Tefillah, prayer life, is the way in which you engage in spiritual community. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have perfect attendance at daily minyan, although that’s nice. Tefillah is the way in which you turn yourself over to a higher power. This is the recognition that as amazing as you are, you are not God. Rather, you are a part of a community of people who share faith and understanding. Tefillah is your guts, your core, your beliefs. And just like with teshuva, it’s through your moral compass that you teach others how to connect too.  

Finally, tzedakah. What will the story of your giving be? Were you an active community member, giving of your time and expertise? Will your story be one of investment of wealth or wisdom, through your talent or your time? Our stories are told through how we give of ourselves.  

While most of us will never have a smash broadway musical made of our life’s story, believe me there will be a story to tell. A story about who you were and what you did. As we begin Yizkor, we recall the stories of those whose memories live on because we tell their story. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? And what story will they tell?

Body of Water – Yom Kippur 5778


I’ve been staring at the edge of the water

Long as I can remember, never really knowing why

I wish I could be the perfect daughter

But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

Ready to sing with me yet?

Every turn I take, every trail I track

Every path I make, every road leads back

To the place I know where I cannot go

Where I long to be

If you haven’t heard the soundtrack to Moana, I highly recommend it. The music is by Lin-Manuel Miranda, so what’s not to like? Sadly I haven’t seen Hamilton yet, but if it earns me any street cred, I’ve been a fan since In the Heights.

When it comes to the movie, I was late to the Moana fan club. I don’t usually succumb to the movie musical hysteria at all, but with a four-year-old in the house, it was inevitable. And surprise – I found myself deeply moved by the lyrics and the storyline, especially the theme of the power, mysteriousness, and beauty of water. The ocean is actually a silent character in the movie. If you want to compare it to other Disney films, water plays sort of a Jiminy Cricket/Fairy Godmother type of role. You might describe it as a gentle, guiding conscience.

This got me thinking. Few things symbolize Yom Kippur quite like our relationship – as Jews – with water. Water is actually used in many ways in Judaism, from something as simple as ritual hand washing, to something as powerful as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, marking their transformation from a tribe of slaves into a free people.

However, the two most prominent uses of water deal with our rebirth into a new stage of life via the mikveh, and our physical body’s final earthly experience with taharah, the ceremonial cleansing of a body before burial. Death and rebirth. In a sense, they are opposites, but this cycle is the essence of Yom Kippur.

In Jewish tradition, the body (met or meta) is never left alone from the moment of death until burial. Shmira is the ritual guarding of the met/meta during this period. In ancient times, the guarding of the body served as physical protection from predators and desecration. In our day, when physical protection is not as necessary, shmira serves the spiritual purpose of guarding the soul. It has been said that when the soul, neshama, departs from the body it has been united with for so many years, it yearns to return to the body, and so must be comforted.

In Jewish tradition, we come into the world pure and are to leave it pure. Tahara is a purification ritual for both the body and soul (neshama) of the deceased. We know this practice goes back at least to its codification in 1626, and the essential form of the tahara is similar throughout the world. It’s performed by three to four members of the Chevra Kadisha  or Chevra Kavod HaMet in our community who are the same gender as the person who has died.

It’s a very intimate process. After initially addressing the deceased by name, the designees then wash the body from head to toe as corresponding verses from the Song of Songs are read. For example, as the head is washed, one recites:

His head is like the most fine gold; his heaps of curls are black as a raven.

And as the body is washed, one recites:

Her body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

Next is the pouring of purification water over the body, preceded by a quote from Rabbi Akiva, which in part says:

And I will pour upon you pure water and you will be purified of all your defilements and from all your abominations I will purify you.

Using pitchers, water is poured in a continuous stream over the entire body, while simultaneously saying, tahora hee (she is pure) or tahora hoo (he is pure). The met/meta is then carefully dried with cloth and, following a concluding prayer, is ready to be dressed in the ritual garments.

These acts of tahahra ensure that each individual is treated as equal and the same. And there is a striking parallel to our experience on Yom Kippur. Though we live on and mature and grow older, the yearly cycle dictates that the previous year must, in some way, die. TV writer Megan Amram always uses the same joke on Twitter every secular New Year’s Eve. It says “R.I.P 2016” and then in parentheses, in classic headstone style, “2016 to 2016.”

Kol Nidre is, in a sense, the final purification of the year as we wrap ourselves in traditional garments and use our beautiful liturgy to cleanse and guard our souls.

Our other primary water-based ritual, immersion in the mikveh, has its own parallels to the holiday.

Ritual immersion is an ancient part of Jewish tradition, noted in the Torah and in later rabbinic commentaries. Today, there are only a few cases where immersion is still designated as a mitzvah, or an act required by Jewish law: for those converting to Judaism, for brides, and for women observing niddah, which is the practice of immersing monthly following menstruation.

But the mikveh has also been used for other purposes throughout Jewish history. For example, it was used by men prior to Shabbat and other holidays and by women in the ninth month of pregnancy. A mikveh is so important that we just built a beautiful, new community mikveh as a partnership between the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and the Oregon Board of Rabbis for our community called Rachel’s Well.  

Rabbi Akiva in Mishnah Yoma says:

Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you are able to cleanse yourself and become renewed? And who is it that renews you? It is your God, as it is said: I will pour renewing water upon you and you shall be renewed. And it further says: O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O HaShem – just as a mikveh cleanses, so too does He, Holy One, blessed be He, cleanses Israel.

Mikveh is a fascinating Jewish ritual. It’s a relatively brief experience, yet it is intended to symbolize and even bring about profound change for the individual. The mikveh pool recalls the watery state that each of us knew before we were born; the ritual of entering and leaving mayim chayim, living waters, creates the time and space to acknowledge and embrace a new stage of life.

So too, Yom Kippur is a relatively brief moment in time, a short 25-hour blip in the year. Yet during this short time, the splendor of the liturgy and the heightened awareness from fasting are meant to bring about momentous change. We are reborn; our souls are refreshed. In a time when cleanses are still the rage, this is the ultimate cleanse, a cleansing of body and mind.

I could spend an entire sermon comparing death and rebirth in Judaism – there are seven steps into the mikveh and seven days of shiva, and in each case we are naked and vulnerable – but I keep coming back to this one aspect.

The funny thing is I am a terrible swimmer, yet I love being in and near water. You can tell from old home movies my mom has that I clearly loved bath time. Those will not be posted on the Neveh Shalom Facebook page, in case you’re curious.

Water has just always drawn me – except for my time in Dallas, every place I’ve lived has had relatively easy access to large bodies of water. It has been a source of calm, of comfort. Whether it’s a refreshing shower after a long walk or a summer rainstorm, I love it.

And, perhaps not so coincidentally, Yom Kippur has long been one of my favorite holidays. In both cases, there is something about the majesty and the power, both creative and destructive. In the case of water, you don’t have to reach any further back than the last few months, when we saw how destructive water and wind together can be. At the same time, water is essential to creation; we must have it to survive, and it’s one of the keys we look for to try to determine if there’s life elsewhere in the universe.

Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, is in its own way both creative and destructive. As we see the past year destroyed and put to rest, the new one is created. It is both uplifting, bringing us to the highest high of the year, and purposefully, excessively humbling.

May we use this brief moment in time to tap into – pun intended – the essence of the holiday. For this is our most naked and vulnerable celebration. There are no decorations on Yom Kippur. There is no sukkah, no etrog. No grogger, no spiel.  No dreidels, no candles, except for that of Yizkor, the flame of memory. There is only this moment right now, pure as water. G’mar hatima tova.

Visiting (H)ours – Yom Kippur 5777


As you may have noticed, I’m not a big fan of taking time off. I will be the first to admit that my idea of having a baby seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah was a little bit crazy, but being at work, being with our community, is what I need. While I love spending the days in my PJs or yoga pants snuggling up with sweet Matan, one thing I learned from Shiri’s birth was that I really, truly enjoyed being with community. I tend to get restless and crave interaction with other humans, besides the human who is with me virtually nonstop. It made me all the more grateful in the subsequent weeks when I started to get visitors.

We seem to have a default quarantine policy, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Of course in some cases there’s good reason for it. At camp when someone is diagnosed with something like H1N1 or lice, they might be isolated from the community to stop the contagion. But isolation also comes with the risk of being cut off in an emotional and spiritual sense from the human contact we all need.

Even when there’s no contagious infection – like a cancer patient who goes to the hospital alone, too afraid to ask for help, or a pregnant woman on bed-rest until labor commences – we tend to think of these people as untouchable. Perhaps we send flowers, a balloon, or a note, but that’s generally where it stops. We take the first step to make contact, but stop at human, face-to-face interaction.

The reason I bring this up on Yom Kippur is because as we are thinking about the ways we could have made it a better 5776, I wanted to suggest an action item for your 5777. Something important, yet very doable. On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how we refresh a little bit of ourselves every year. And today I thought it might be helpful to offer one specific way to refresh not only our own lives, but those close to us as well.

Why is it our nature as human beings to want to help in some circumstances and to feel helpless and uncomfortable in others? This may be the very reason there are a number of mitzvot, communal standards of practice established in the Torah, that require us to move past our own discomfort and truly reach out to complete the community. One of the most prominent is Bikur cholim. This imperative to visit the sick seems like a simple, self-evident, obvious instruction, and yet so many in our communities remain alone in their suffering.

In Bereshit Abraham goes through many different life challenges: he leaves the only land he knows, he gets married, and he follows this God he has never really seen. Among all the interactions Abraham has with God, we don’t really get the sense that God is present, supporting him, except for one interaction, Bikur cholim. Here’s the passage in Genesis:

And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the same day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money from the stranger, were circumcised with him. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.

Abraham goes through an intimate and fairly painful procedure, and the next thing we learn is that he had a visitor. By visiting Abraham to distract him from the pain of recovering from circumcision, God provides us with this prime, often-cited example of the mitzvah of visiting the sick.

Let’s be clear. God is God, right? So couldn’t God have taken away the pain? Or sped up the recovery time? No, instead God chooses to model behavior, to lead by example. When you go visit someone who is ill, your visit may not measurably alter the course of the illness, but the knowledge that you care may ease their suffering and discomfort. Human presence doesn’t have the same impact as an antibiotic, but conversation and interaction can alleviate stress and dispel any fears that the person suffering somehow deserved it. It wasn’t that God was healing Abraham directly, but instead showing Abraham he was not alone.

When I was a senior in high school my father had emergency bowel resection surgery for his Crohn’s disease. He was rushed to the hospital and required a multi-night stay. I loved my father more than anything, and yet the one thing I could not get myself to do was to go visit him. After seeing my grandparents with tubes in their bodies and having to say goodbye to them, I associated hospitals with death, with sadness. I couldn’t go, I was paralyzed with fear. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my father; it was that I was scared, I was stuck in my head. I despised going to the hospital because I was afraid of the unknown. Over the years and through many actual hospital visits, I realized that by keeping myself away initially, I certainly didn’t worsen his condition, but I withheld from my dad the medicine that I was able to offer, human interaction.

A few years before he passed away, I had a heart to heart with my dad. He wasn’t a well man, but none of his health challenges were contagious. He spent the better part of his last year on this earth in and out of the hospital and the rehab facility. Between the hospital, rehab, and home, he had a lot of time alone to think about the world. He told me he spoke to God, he prayed, he read, but what was missing most was human contact. He felt alone because too many people were, like I was, paralyzed by our own complicated feelings.

Our Torah text does not say that God came to visit Abraham when it was convenient; it says that God came to the door of the tent in the heat of the day. Not that heat was an issue for God, but it implies that this visit was a challenge; it was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. Abraham needed and deserved comfort. Our friends, family, and community deserve the same. And it may require you to go outside your comfort zone, into the heat of the day, or in our case, the rain.

The problem is even though this passage is a great illustration of Bikur cholim, there’s no real roadmap in the Torah for how to overcome our own obstacles and do it. Fortunately, we have Hillel for that.

Hillel, the wise, early rabbinic scholar said: “Do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge your fellow until you have walked in their shoes, do not trust that something will be understood in the end if it is not clear in the moment, and do not say that when you have time you will learn, lest you never have the time.” I will admit, it doesn’t quite fit as nicely on a throw pillow as “If not now, when?” but it does a great job summarizing our plan of action. Let’s break it down.

Do not separate yourself from the community. This can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Hillel recognized that community is essential in making sure a person feels supported and truly is supported. At the same time, this might suggest a community is to be together; if someone cannot come to the community but wants to be there, perhaps the community has an obligation to go to them.

It’s pretty clear what this woman was feeling in her time of need. As a community and as individuals it is our duty to stay connected, even if we need a little push to do so. Bikur cholim, visiting the sick, isn’t just helpful to the sick person. It’s imperative to making sure that our community exists, that it remains whole. When someone is sick, it is easy to withdraw, making the community less than whole. It is our obligation to support them, to make sure that our community is supportive, embracing, there.

Do not judge your fellow until you have walked in their shoes. At its core, this portion of the teaching is really about understanding the difference between someone’s needs and your own interpretation of someone’s needs. Maybe a visitor isn’t always in someone’s best interest. Sometimes the greatest need is a little privacy. Or perhaps the company is helpful, but only for talking about anything other than the illness. Or maybe the most helpful thing you can do is provide the comfort of simply sitting in silence together with a friend or family member.

The other side of that coin? Do not trust that something will be understood in the end if it is not clear in the moment. As much as we want to swoop in and solve every last problem or pain point, part of the responsibility belongs to those we are helping. It may sound counterintuitive to have to rely on the person facing the illness, but a support team isn’t made up of mind readers.

When you’re the one in need, it’s often up to you to find a way to share those needs. Be specific when you ask for help, and it will ease the stress for everyone involved. The community wants to support you, but they may not know exactly how. Tell them. Otherwise you’ll be stuck hearing that least helpful of statements, “If you need something, let me know.” Of course they need something, that’s why you’re there. Even if it’s just setting up a time to play a board game, offer something specific. Can I go grocery shopping for you? Can I watch your kids? Do you need me to order something online or pick up something from the library?

A cancer research organization in the UK posted a great discussion in their online forum last year. It’s called “12 things to never say to someone who has cancer.” What’s so shocking when you hear these is that they simultaneously sound like innocent statements of concern and also callous, mindless platitudes. And obviously you could substitute the mention of cancer for another illness or struggle, and we would all be guilty of using these phrases at some point.

Here are a few from the list that are worth repeating. Number one: “That’s a good cancer to have.” As if there are good cancers and bad cancers. Number six: “You’re so brave.” I didn’t know cancer was a thrill sport like skydiving. Number eight: “If anyone can beat this, you can.” Right, because clearly anyone who didn’t beat it simply wasn’t trying hard enough. And number ten: “I know how you feel.” No, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t.

The rest of the post offers a few helpful suggestions for what to say instead, and they fit perfectly in line with the idea of being as clear as possible in the moment. Instead, you could say, “Do you need a ride?” “Would you like to borrow the first two seasons of Veep?” Or even “I don’t really know what to say, but I’m available to come spend time with you tomorrow afternoon.”

Finally, do not say that when you have time you will learn, lest you never have the time. This line perhaps speaks to me the most. Whatever it is, do not put it off. Do not say when you have time you will visit someone because chances are you will never make the time. Bikur cholim is a mitzvah that requires intention, it requires making the time to go. It requires making it a habit.

As a community, we have these habits we fall into. We wish each other a shanah tova every year and a Shabbat shalom every week. We send emails, we bake cookies, we donate money – these are all wonderful habits. Why not add to that list visiting someone in need? Why not go one step beyond noticing when someone isn’t in their usual seat, and call that person?

As Hillel reminds us, these are individual choices we make. Will you separate yourself from the community or keep people close? Will you be quick to judge or will you withhold judgment until you understand fully what someone is going through? Will you offer vague, not-so-helpful reassurances that only make you feel better, or will you ask in specific terms how you can help? Will you put it off because you’re uncomfortable or will you do it today?

Start your year off right. In a few moments we will begin Yizkor, that sacred time when we call to mind the memories and legacies of our loved ones who are no longer on this earth. There is a tradition of leaving this space if your parents are still living, but that message is the opposite of what community is for. Consider, if you will, taking the first step towards being there for your community by making a choice to stay, support, and comfort the mourners.

I know this kind of active exercise in community building that we call Bikur cholim is asking a lot. I don’t take that lightly. But I want us to push each other to be physically present for each other. And I’m not suggesting we stop the more indirect outreach. We still need the prayer. We still need a Mi Sheberach. We still need a “thinking of you.” But 5777 will be a better year toward a better life because we were present in all ways possible. Even in the heat of the day.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah

Gemar chatimah tovah

Gemar chatimah tovah. In this new year, may you be sealed for health and prosperity. Just a quick word of thanks to everyone who has followed and supported my writing over the past year (and before). I hope it has benefited you in some way, even if it was just to cause a smile or a thought-provoking moment in your day.

Also, you may have noticed that the last two posts have appeared under the username of my loving husband and faithful editor Duncan. As a social media professional, Duncan thankfully manages my blog, and occasionally it gets a little confusing having him log in as himself to post d’vrei Torah that I’ve emailed to him ahead of time. It is without a doubt a team effort, but hopefully that clears up the username error from the last two weeks.

Again, best wishes and blessings to you and your family in the year to come.  –Rabbi Eve

Once More With Feeling – Yom Kippur 5776

Yom Kippur 5776

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.

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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.