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When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
To those who plowed the fields
To those who planted the vines
To those who tended the vines
To those who picked the grapes
To those who fermented the fruit
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
To those who bottled the wine
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
To those who sold the wine
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
I have a confession to make: For a while now, I’ve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But I’ve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people aren’t following and don’t understand what they’re saying. Now that I’ve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words “v’tzivanu,” like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.
Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. It’s good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while.
In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning “services.” We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or
And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm. I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.
There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe that’s why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We weren’t thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and loved—the vibe went out and it reverberated back.
I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?
I had a few takeaways from this experience, and here’s what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:
Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people. I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.
It was 2:56 AM when I heard, “Mooooomy…I NEED you…” When I went into my 6-year-old’s room, feeling frustrated and annoyed, she looked right at me and said with a clear, unwavering voice, “It’s inappropriate when you tell other people that I don’t stay in my bed all night.” My heart skipped a beat. “You’re right,” I said. “Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am sorry I embarrassed you. I will not share personal information like that again.”
My child is forming a sense of self and her own reputation. She has self-worth and self-respect.
As I sit for hours in prayer this coming High Holiday season, I will pray that I can do a better job of finding my own personal outlets for my frustrations and angst. I will pray that I uplift my children. I will wonder how to offer encouragement that inspires rather than using mocking to urge behavioral shifts, which is demeaning. I will pledge to talk less and listen more. I will vow to yell less. I will marvel at the mother I am, the wife I try to be and the rabbi I hope I am. I will think about the kind of year I want it to be.
This year, I will challenge myself not to rush my children to move faster to get to an after-school activity which is supposed to be life enhancing for them. Rushing them and causing stress takes away from the reason we are doing of the activity in the first place. I will remind myself to be disciplined in my spending: to buy fewer toys and “stuff” and to declutter our house and our lives. (Physically getting rid of stuff is a major Passover theme, but a little spiritual fall soul cleansing is good, too.)
If you find yourself in communal prayer over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and you are bored, distracted, hungry or having trouble with all of the Hebrew or the images of God as King, think about the idea of “chet.” This is a word you will hear a lot in the liturgy. It is translated as sin and is an archer’s term for “missing the mark.” The High Holidays are a time to re-calibrate our aim. For sins against God, such as ignoring the Sabbath (a chance to rest and refresh, to re-prioritize, to reboot and connect to friends and family), God will forgive my trespass. But, for sins against others, I need to make amends. I need to do better.
As we all know, our children are our best mirrors. When our children tell us to put our phones down and when our children tell us we have embarrassed them, then it’s time to re-calibrate and aim again.
As the ethical teachings of our ancestors explains: “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone,’ as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.’”
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…”
On our family’s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didn’t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dog’s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of God’s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was present—even those who were yet to be—at that most awesome moment in our shared history and “memory.” So, what about people who aren’t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
Several years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.
Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.
“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.
We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.
Sara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.
If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.
The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.
My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.
Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.
At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).
I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.
The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.
I often feel that life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally to celebrate. There are definitely highs and lows of each day and some events stay with us for days or weeks, but generally days and weeks come and go. This is why entering a period of pause each week, called Shabbat is so crucial. This is why holidays and life cycle events are so important. They mark our time with meaning.
This past weekend, two events occurred in our house which felt they changed our lives. Although the two events were not monumental to most, they felt dramatic to me.
The first event was that my six-year-old had her first spelling test. First grade is very different from “half-day” kindergarten. In first grade, she gets on the bus at 8:30 and comes off the bus at 3:30 and has had all kinds of experiences that she navigates herself. Most of her day is at school—not at home now. However, this first spelling test brought me nearly to tears of joy. She had reached a new place in her young life. Now, she was being tested and judged based on what she studied and how she performed. Now, we as parents, had a new responsibility on our shoulders: to help her study.
The second event that occurred was that our daughter went on her first sleep-over at a friend’s house around the corner from where we live. We were proud and filled with nachas (a Yiddish word meaning pride from a loved one’s accomplishment). She had to make her needs known. She had to perform her own self-care.
I got into bed the night she was not home and felt God’s presence as I have not felt in a long time. Perhaps because I have been moved by the stories my colleagues—fellow rabbi-rabbi parents have shared about their own son’s brave fight of childhood cancer and about the thousands like him—I cherish even more keenly and with a different perspective our children’s lives.
When I say I felt God’s presence, what I felt was the support of thousands of other parents over generations who have had the joy of seeing their children accomplish new feats. I felt excitement at what was to come. I felt in awe of how life moves along and how obstacles are overcome.
I love the shehecheyanu prayer (the Jewish Kodak moment blessing). It is said at new and joyous occasions and it thanks God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this new place. The word “chai” (life) is in the middle of this hard-to-pronounce word, shehecheyanu. Judaism is obsessed with life. With living the best life we can. Harold Kushner wrote a whole book called, To Life. Think Fiddler on the Roof, “To life, to life, l’chayim.”
Of course I said shehecheyanu. I say it at every wedding. I said it when a first tooth was lost. (I think I was too sleep deprived to say it when that tooth grew in at three or four months old!) I said it when it snowed for the first time this season a few days ago in Chicago. But, I wanted a different, more specific prayer for this occasion of watching my daughter grow up.
Those who were raised with Judaism can be skittish about spontaneous, personal prayer. We like scripted prayers that start, “Baruch Atah Adonai…” I wrote my rabbinic thesis on spontaneous Jewish prayer because I am terrified of it. But, I prayed to God from my heart in my bed that night.
Over Thanksgiving dinner or the first nights of Hanukkah, maybe give yourself the freedom to add your own words, your own sentiments to our scripted prayers. Or fill the words from the sheets you read or which flow from your mouth out of memory with kavannah, special intention.
Judaism is all about turning the mundane into the sacred. A spelling test? A sleep-over? Yes—these were sacred moments to mark.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.
Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.
After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.
In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.
There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:
My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?
Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:
Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace).
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.
Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.
There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.
The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness. Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you.
Beyond the Psalms:
In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):
Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.