Erev Rosh Hashana 5776: Listening to our Prayers

In his 2002 debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer introduces us to the mythical village of Trachimbrod, Ukraine, circa 1791. The village has 300 citizens, all of them Jewish. This shtetl is divided into a Jewish Quarter and a Human Three Quarters. In the Jewish Quarter, everything of a sacred nature goes on – religious studies, kosher butchering, bargaining – and in the Human Three Quarters all secular activities take place. Dividing the two quarters is the synagogue. There are two Torahs in the ark, placed strategically so that one Torah sits in each zone.  When the men of this synagogue pray, they have a strange custom.  They clip a rope to their belts and hoist themselves via a pulley to the ceiling. This is so they can be, literally, closer to G-d.

There is another group in the village that never attends the synagogue. This group meets every week in different people’s homes. They have no Rabbi, they sit on pillows in a circle, and engage in group led discussions. Mostly they talk about their recurrent dreams, which they then record in a book.

When the balance of Jewish to secular changed in the village, it was the custom of the people to lift the synagogue and move it, a little to the right of to the left, to reflect the new ratio of Jewish to secular. Eventually the synagogue was put on wheels, making the ever changing negotiations between religious and secular less of a schlepp.

Friends, when I read this description of the mythical Trachimbrod community, I could not help but think of our own Congregation Beth Shalom community.  There is one group who do not come to services because the Rabbi talks about G-d too much, and our prayer book is filled with images of the Divine. There is another group who do not attend services because services are not spiritual enough, they do not sustain your soul. I am hesitant to reveal to these two groups that the subject of my talk tonight is prayer. I am concerned about how you will receive it. For those who do not come to services because the Rabbi talks about G-d too much – I am afraid you will find my sermon entirely irrelevant to your lives. For those who do not attend services because services are not spiritual enough – I am afraid you will not find my sermon deep or spiritually satisfying.

You must be asking yourselves by now – if the rabbi thought that half of us would be either disinterested or disappointed in what he has to say, why did he choose this subject to begin with? Does our rabbi have sadomasochistic tendencies? The reason I choose to speak about prayer this sacred eve is this: We come to synagogue this evening for different reasons. For some, it is a chance to see and to be seen. Some come in solidarity and in identification with our Jewish community. Some come out of curiosity as to what the Rabbi will say. Some come to hear the beautiful music of our Cantor and choir. Some come because of associations the High Holidays have with parents and grandparents, with warm childhood memories. Some come because their parents want them to come.  Some come because their husbands or wives want them to come. Some come because their friends and family are here. Some can’t figure out why they come, but they come anyway.  No matter what our particular reasons are for being here tonight, we all expect to spend some time in prayer. Prayer may not be the primary reason we come, but it is the primary activity we will engage in over the course of the next two weeks! That is why I gave myself the challenging task of speaking about prayer.

There are two functions that prayer ought to serve – to comfort us and to challenge us. I want to explore those two aspects of prayer this evening. Prayer aims to comfort us.  Our prayers reassure us that however chaotic the world may seem or our lives may be, there is a loving G-d who cares about us, who watches over us, who is with us in times of suffering.  As you know, the theme of this season is teshuvah – return.  Our prayers inform us that however far we have strayed, there is a way back. No matter how much we have disappointed ourselves or others, no matter how far we have departed from our ideals, in this holiday season our prayers teach us that we can begin anew, we can leave old baggage behind- that all can, and will, be forgiven if we are honest with ourselves and with others. We can make atonement — at -one- ment – to become at one again with G-d, at one with our friends and family, at one with ourselves. If we would listen to our prayers, instead of merely recite them we might find that they express in words what we cannot. The prayers may be ancient – the human struggles they convey are not.  If we would listen to our prayers, instead of merely recite them, we may find that we are not the first to fall in love, the first to experience the pain of loss; we are not the first to be stricken by the uncertainty of illness, the first to worry about how we will put food on the table, the first to experience betrayal. If we would listen to our prayers, instead of merely recite them, we will learn that we are not the first to have misgivings of the past, or apprehensions about the future; that we are not the first to feel the pain of loneliness, or the panic of abandonment – if we would only listen to our prayers, and not merely recite them.

Prayer should challenge us as well.  We must not only examine our past deeds.  We ought to challenge ourselves with questions about our present and about our future. Who am I? Am I living according to the highest ideals of the Jewish people? Where am I in this stage of my life?  Am I headed in the right direction?  As we challenge ourselves, we must remain aware that those around us are all facing challenges of different kinds. All of us are imperfect beings, all are struggling to be better parents, to be better spouses, to be better friends, to be better children, to be more honest and more loving  kinder and more generous. Ultimately, we must challenge ourselves to ask, “How can standing in the presence of G-d this High Holiday season help me to address some of these issues?”

Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shlomi , z”l  once said that prayer is less like a vending machine – you put something in and you get something out – and more like a flight path – you are transported into another place.  But let’s face it – sometimes we feel like we are grounded for hours when we pray, as if by bad weather or mechanical difficulties. All we want to do is get off of the plane.

Should that happen, take comfort in the story of Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl , who was once reciting his High Holiday prayers with great fervor. His grandson, standing near him, felt a sinking feeling. Everyone seemed to be praying with great concentration, but it took all the strength that he had to be able to focus on even a single word.  Afterward, the grandson approached his grandfather, with much trepidation, aware that he had barely been able to make it through the service.  Would his grandfather, the great Tsaddik, be angry with him? Reb Nachum turned to him and said, “My son, how your prayer took heaven by storm today! It lifted up all those prayers that could not come through the gates!

Sometimes we too feel like complete failures at prayer. We feel like we have no talent for it. Then we look around, see others who appear to know exactly what they are doing, and conclude that maybe next year our time would be better spent on some other endeavor. The story of Reb Nachum is telling us that if we only end up praying that we would be able to pray, if we wish to cry but find our tears lacking, if we hope that we will ascend on the wings of our prayers but find that we cannot even get off the ground — then we should know that this too is a high form of prayer.

There. Your Rabbi is done. I have said my piece and we have all survived….. as far as I can determine.  I will ask you one more thing. When you are talking with your friends and your family tonight or tomorrow morning, and they ask you about the Rabbi’s sermon – if it spoke to you, tell them you liked it. By all means, tell them it was a good sermon! But if you are a person who doesn’t come to services because the Rabbi talks about G-d too much; or if you are a person who doesn’t come to services because services are not spiritual enough; well, then I would think this was a difficult sermon to hear. So if someone asks you about the Rabbi’s sermon, think of the response of Pope Francis when asked about homosexual priests.  As you may recall, the Pope responded to that question, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Likewise, if someone asks you about tonight’s sermon, please consider saying – “The rabbi’s sermon? – Who am I to judge?”

Shanah Tovah