Saturday, May 31, 2014

From the wilderness to the synagogue

Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21 - 7:89) ‎
In the desert, the people of Israel built the tabernacle so God would dwell among them. In ‎Exodus, the artisans completed their work and gave an accounting of how they used the ‎contributions from the people. In Leviticus, the priests were consecrated and began offering ‎sacrifices. In this week’s portion, the tribal chieftains bring sacrifices, gifts to ensure the ‎ongoing function of the tabernacle.‎

Twelve chieftains, twelve identical gifts. 
Abarbanel explains that each gift, although identical, ‎is listed separately because each chieftain brought it with an individual intention (kavana). ‎

This is similar to communal prayer to this day. The maintenance of a synagogue still requires ‎generous gifts. We, too, use a uniform ceremony and text but the intention, the inner content, ‎is different for each person. 
We often hear complaints about the length and repetitiveness of ‎the service – like this week’s portion. Then we look for external ways to improve our prayer ‎experience because it is always easier pass the responsibility on. But the improvements can ‎and must come from within. ‎

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote at length about problem of prayer in the modern ‎synagogue: “The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ‎ourselves… Kavanah requires preparation. Miracles may happen, but one must not rely on ‎miracles” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, MGSA).

The challenge we face is preparing ourselves so our prayer will come from within. There ‎were 12 chieftains, there are more than 12 ways prepare for prayer. Here are a few.‎

The study of liturgy, the origin and history of prayers is my first love in the field of Jewish ‎studies. We study the fixed text (keva) and then move through it to intention. Heschel calls ‎this a prayer of empathy, the “more common type of prayer… There is need be no prayerful ‎mood when we begin to pray (MGSA).” We need do to be open and allow the words to lead ‎us. This is the method I usually teach.‎

However, today I want to focus on intention ab initio*. ‎

Start with a few quiet moments – – perhaps take a deep breath. Then… ‎

Be thankful. We have done nothing to merit our lives, and therefore we must daily express ‎our gratitude for them. The custom is to begin each day with “Grateful am I (Modeh ani).” In ‎the Amida, we say “Grateful are we (Modim anachnu).” To be a Jew means to follow in the ‎footsteps of the matriarch Leah and be thankful for what we have (a fourth son) even if we are ‎lacking something else important (Jacob’s love). Who is rich? The one who is happy in her ‎lot. (See Genesis 29:35: the name “Yehuda” is derived from the root to “thank,” or “admit.”)‎

To be grateful for what we have and be content with our lot, does not mean that we do not ‎feel what is lacking. For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the main intentions for prayer is ‎the admission that we cannot achieve everything we want on our own. As we enter into ‎prayer, we must distinguish between our needs, our worthy desires and our less than worthy ‎desires. He emphasizes that this is not a simple task because, 
An entire technology is bent ‎upon generating more and more needs in order to give man the opportunity to derive ‎pleasure through the gratification of artificially-fabricated needs” (“Redemption, Prayer and ‎Talmud Torah”). 
Soloveitchik wrote this 35 years ago. Consumer culture and the influence of ‎advertising has only become stronger since then. Prayer gives us a moment to reestablish our ‎priorities and break free of the dizziness of acquisitiveness.‎

Heschel approaches prayer from a different direction. For him, “To pray is to take notice of ‎the wonder (Man’s Quest for God).” Prayers of praise burst forth from this wonder. Heschel ‎considers praise far superior to petitionary prayer, even claiming that the true moment of ‎prayer occurs when the person praying for bread rises above the request and is aware only of ‎God’s mercy (MGSA). ‎

That moment passes. It is not the experience of daily prayer. If you experience it, treasure the ‎memory. On a grey day, the memory wonder can open a pathway to intention.‎

Before concluding, a favorite quote from Heschel, one of my favorites and apparently one of ‎his, too, because it appears in his writings several times.‎
We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different ‎setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel… Prayer takes the ‎mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the ‎mirror of the holy (MGSA). ‎
We are to step aside, try seeing the world as it really is and the many tasks before us. In a ‎popular song Julie Gold wrote, “From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need. ‎God is watching us from a distance.” No. We affirm that our God cares for orphans and ‎widows (Deuteronomy 10:18 and elsewhere), sees the truth and asks “Where are you? (Genesis 3:9).”‎

In the time of prayer, we must reply, and identify our task in this world, what we can give in ‎response to the needs of the other. This doesn't come easily. The pressures of life drag us ‎down and cloud our vision. 
Prayer is difficult, intention acquires effort and discipline. Even ‎Heschel testifies, “I am not always in the mood to pray... But when I am weak, it is the law ‎that gives me strength (MGSA).” ‎

It’s not likely to the chieftains in the wilderness were wealthy. Their gifts were sacrifices. ‎Giving was difficult but brought them closer to the holy. 
We are not required to sacrifice ‎cattle rather time, effort and the words of our lips. ‎

May we know how to do the work and answer the call. ‎


Shoshana Michael Zucker, Hod Vehadar, 5574-2014

*I am grateful to Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon and Yeshivat Hadar, New York, whose writing and teaching ‎about Heschel and prayer helped me organize my thoughts about things I have been ‎thinking about for a long time. ‎

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