The story is told of an old Jew who prayed every day at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. One day he was interviewed by a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. “How many years have you been praying here?” asked the reporter? “Sixty-seven years,” replied the man. “What do you pray for?” asked the reporter. “I pray for peace between Jews, Muslims and Christians. I also pray for the love of human beings for one another. And, I pray for politicians to be honest and fair.” The reporter asked, “So what has this long experience of prayer been like for you after all these years?” “It’s like talking to a wall,” replied the man.
Prayer can be a frustrating experience. We pray, but we sometimes feel as if we are talking to a wall. We pray, but we seem to get no response to our prayers. Nothing changes – neither us nor our world. Perhaps after sixty seven years the man in this story needs to change something about how he prays. Shake things up a little. Try something different. Perhaps this year we too can try something different.
Contemporary American writer Ann Lamott advises us not to get trapped in the mundane routines of life. Don’t be afraid of finding G-d! She writes, “Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don’t look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom. Instead, they walk around bitterly, bumping into glass walls.”
This summer, Middy and I learned some lessons about worship by visiting Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We looked up! The natural beauty of these treasured parks is overwhelming. The Grand Tetons soar above pristine lakes, wild rivers plunge through deep walled canyons, rolling meadows dotted with yellow, and pink and violet wildflowers spread out at our feet. Time and again we stood spellbound as we took in the beauty around us. Everything is laid out perfectly, as on a canvas by Monet. . “WHO PUT This Here?” I cried out. Indeed, there is no need for a signature on this work of art, as the psalmist writes:
“The Heavens declare the glory of G-d/The skies declares His handiwork
“Day after day the word goes forth/night after night the story is told
“Without speaking, without a voice being heard/ the story is echoed throughout the world.”
I felt I understood, on a deeper level, those words of Psalm 19, which we recite in our prayers each Shabbat morning. All one needs to do is listen to the silent testimony of Nature herself to know that this is the work of our Creator.
Rosh Hashanah is our annual celebration of G-d’s creation. It is, as we know, the Birthday of the World. I don’t know if you have noticed that in our prayers we praise G-d as “The One Who Creates the World” – present tense – rather than, “The One who Created the World” – past tense. This reminds us that creation is a, dynamic, ongoing and unfinished process. At Yellowstone National Park, which sits on the crater of an active volcano, one witnesses firsthand evidence of this. One sees it in the breathtakingly hot, sulfurous gasses escape from holes in the earth called fumaroles. Out of other vents in the ground boiling water, heated by the magma below, is spewed into the air in a jet streams we call a geyser. Numerous other hot springs bubble up from the ground, providing breeding grounds for organisms, called thermophiles, which color their waters in yellows, in oranges, in blues, in purples, in greens. In other places bubbling mud oozes up from beneath the surface of the earth forming ominous looking pools called mud pots.
Upon seeing all of this, the words of the Psalms came to mind: Mah Rabu Maasecha, Adonai, Me’od amku mach-she-vo-techa — How great are your works, Adonai, your designs are profound.
Being so immersed in the beauty and grandeur of nature elicits feelings of awe and of closeness to G-d. The medieval poet Moshe Ibn Ezra tells us that we err when we seek G-d in miracles or in supernatural signs. All one has to do to find G-d is to “look up”. He writes:
I see You in the starry field, I see You in the harvest’s yield,
In every breath, in every sound, an echo of Your name is found.
The blade of grass, the simple flower, Bear witness to Your matchless power.
In wonder-workings, or some bush aflame,
Men look for God and fancy Him concealed;
But in earth’s common things He stands revealed
While grass and flowers and stars spell out His name.
But Jewish thought is far from unanimous in extolling the virtues of finding G-d in nature. In a passage of Pirke Avot, a collection of rabbinic teachings, Rabbi Yaakov says: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, “How beautiful is this tree!”, “How beautiful is this ploughed field!”—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life!” Make no mistake about it, Rabbi Yaakov is saying that interrupting ones religious studies to appreciate the glories of creation makes the student of Torah deserving of death! This is hard to comprehend. How could it possibly be wrong to take a moment to appreciate nature? True, the Jewish ideal has always been to find G-d in holy texts. But should there not be an acknowledgement that there are multiple ways of seeking and feeling close to G-d?
Fortunately, that passage in Pirke Avot does not represent the final word on the subject. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, would spend an hour every day alone praying in a natural setting in addition to his daily prayers with a minyan. His disciple, Reb Noson, would recite this prayer before setting out into the fields:
“Master of the Universe, let me seclude myself in meditation and prayer every day, going out to the fields to meditate among the trees and the grass, pouring out my heart in prayer. For all the leaves and grass, all the trees and plants, will stir themselves to greet me; they will rise to imbue my words and prayers with their energy and life force. All the trees and plants of the field will merge with my words and prayers; they will combine all their spiritual power and bring my words up to their celestial source. Thus my prayers and supplications will attain perfection.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19thcentury American poet and philosopher, would agree. We are not the same when we are in nature. He wrote, “In the woods we return to nature and faith. Standing on bare ground all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of G-d.”
Jewish mysticism refers to this state of being as “bitul ha-yesh” or “nullification of all traces of self – centeredness. It is when we are engaged so deeply in prayer that we forget about ourselves altogether, and lose ourselves in the moment.
This evening we are gathered once again in our house of worship on Rosh Hashanah. We are all here in search of something — whether it is a sense of community, a feeling of peace or comfort or consolation, an inspiration to propel us forward, an answer to a question, a renewal of hope, a way out of a quandary, or perhaps a way to draw closer to the Almighty. Some of us might feel “up against a wall” and some of us might feel like a bee trapped in the bottom of a mason jar. I hope during the holiday season we will all have a chance to get out into nature, to look up, and when we do, to discover for ourselves some of the lessons nature can teach us about worship. There are many stories about individuals, some of them famous rabbis, who struggle to find their way to meaningful prayer. Tonight I want to leave you with the story of an entire Jewish community, the community of Kiev, Ukraine, who gathered one Rosh Hashanah and discovered a uniquely meaningful way to worship and to connect to G-d.
For 70 years the government of the Soviet Union prohibited Jews from learning Hebrew. It had been a crime to teach Hebrew or to gather in prayer, whether in synagogue or even at home. Countless Jews had been sent to Siberia by Soviet authorities for attempting to learn about prayer or to pray. Yet following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Jews in Kiev, Ukraine gathered in the synagogue for the first time in generations on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1991. The Lubbavitcher Rebbe had sent an emissary with Russian-Hebrew prayer books to lead High Holiday services that year. The synagogue was packed with Jewish men and women, children and teens, who were attending services for the first time in their lives. Just imagine that experience! They had prayer books in Russian and Hebrew, but, of course, could not read the Hebrew – the language of the service they were attending. There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation in the air. But after a short while, the Rabbi realized that the congregation was no longer engaged in the service. They were becoming bored. Many of the people began to wonder, “Could these be the prayers that they had yearned for so many years to recite?
The rabbi interrupted the service and turned to address the congregation. He told them the following story:
The Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”
When the Rabbi of Kiev finished this story, there was complete silence in the congregation. Then, the silence was shattered when a man sitting in the congregation yelled out “Alef”. Thousands echoed back “alef”. Then another voice called out “bet”. Thousands responded – “bet”. And so on through the Hebrew alphabet. When they had concluded the alphabet, the congregation filed out, confident that their prayers had reached the highest realms of heaven and had been accepted by G-d.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are 70 paths to the Torah. There are many ways to engage in meaningful prayer, not only during this High Holiday season, but throughout the year. It is up to each of us to find our own way. No one can do it for us. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “The words of our prayer must not fall off our lips like dead leaves in autumn. They must rise like birds – out of the heart – into the vast expanse of eternity.”