9th Elul – to value each day

In Psalm 90 there is a verse “Limnot yameinu, ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochmah” – “teach us to assess our days so that we may bring to the heart some wisdom”  This verse is a powerful reminder of what we can do in order to make more of our lives.

The psalmist is reminding us to assess each day, to really appreciate and to treasure every one of them, and make them count.

Many of us are so busy just getting through each day, so many different events and activities to juggle, that we forget just how much of a gift each new day really is. Others of us try to fill the acres of time that stretch ahead of us as we get up, wondering how best to get through the day. Almost all of us rarely find the time to treasure our days, or to make them count. Looking back at the end of a week that has been frantic with activity we can rarely feel satisfied that we used the time well.

The morning prayer that traditional Jews say upon waking, before even getting out of bed is  “Modeh Ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.­­­­­“I Gratefully Thank You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion –great is your faith”

While Jewish prayer does not on the whole expect us to explicitly state any belief in God, it does have a dominant mode of gratitude and of thanksgiving. The tradition gives us the words to appreciate our lives, to be grateful for what we already have rather than to always be the petitioner for what we do not have but would like. That is not to say that our prayer does not include us appealing to God for things, but that this pleading is circumscribed and is far less frequent than the prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. And on Shabbat the petitionary prayers disappear entirely, giving God (and ourselves) the day off from listening to our demands.

In the prayer Modeh Ani, we begin the day by being aware of our good fortune and appreciating it – we are alive, it is a time for fresh possibilities, anything can happen in this new day. And we end the prayer not by declaring our faith in God, but by asserting God’s faith in us. We make a statement of extraordinary power. Whether we believe in God is almost immaterial, for God believes in us.

Just as we do not consider the air which we breathe, yet breathe nevertheless; just as fish presumably are unaware of the water in which they swim,  Jewish prayer assumes the faith of God in us is a given, the environment in which we operate. All we are reminded to do is to appreciate each day, to be grateful for what we do have, and to use our time wisely in order to become our best selves, to build our best world.

Psalm 90, a psalm about the eternity of God and the fragility and mortality of humankind, asks God to help us to do the one thing we can really do to make our lives meaningful – teach us to treasure each day, to make every day we live in this world count for something. As we travel through Elul and contemplate the upcoming New Year, with days that may be filled with activity or that may stretch emptily out ahead of us, let this be our motto – to think about and to treasure each day, and to do something each day to give that day meaning and to make it count.

 

Vayikra: when a Jew tries to come closer to God

Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood

The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.

We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.

We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.

So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.

The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.

Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.

When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.

So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless.  Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.

The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us.  One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.

We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.

A prayer for the new year and for every day: “Teach us to assess and to appreciate every day of our lives”

In Psalm 90 there is a verse “Limnot yameinu, ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochmah” – “teach us to assess our days so that we may bring to the heart some wisdom” As the High Holy Days draw to a close and the ideas for change we had then may begin to lose some impetus, this verse is a powerful reminder of what we can do in order to make more of our lives.

The psalmist is reminding us to assess each day, to really appreciate and to treasure every one of them, and make them count.

Many of us are so busy just getting through each day, so many different events and activities to juggle, that we forget just how much of a gift each new day really is. Others of us try to fill the acres of time that stretch ahead of us as we get up, wondering how best to get through the day. Almost all of us rarely find the time to treasure our days, or to make them count. Looking back at the end of a week that has been frantic with activity we can rarely feel satisfied that we used the time well.

The morning prayer that traditional Jews say upon waking, before even getting out of bed, is a prayer of thankfulness. “Modeh Ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.­­­­­

“I Gratefully Thank You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion –great is your faith”

While Jewish prayer does not on the whole expect us to explicitly state any belief in God, it does have a dominant mode of gratitude and of thanksgiving. The traditional prayer gives us the words to appreciate our lives, to be grateful for what we already have rather than to always be the petitioner for what we do not have but would like. That is not to say that our prayer does not include us appealing to God for things, but that this pleading is circumscribed and is far less frequent than the prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. And on Shabbat the petitionary prayers disappear entirely, giving God (and ourselves) the day off from listening to our demands.

In the prayer Modeh Ani, we begin the day by being aware of our good fortune and appreciating it – we are alive, it is a time for fresh possibilities, anything can happen in this new day. And we end the prayer not by declaring our faith in God, but by asserting God’s faith in us. We make a statement of extraordinary power. Whether we believe in God is almost immaterial, for God believes in us.

Just as we rarely think about the air which we breathe, yet we breathe nevertheless; just as fish presumably are unaware of the water in which they swim, Jewish prayer assumes the faith of God in us is a given, the environment in which we operate. All we are reminded to do is to appreciate each day, to be grateful for what we do have, and to use our time wisely in order to become our best selves, to build our best world.

Psalm 90, a psalm about the eternity of God and the fragility and mortality of humankind, asks God to help us to do the one thing we can really do to make our lives meaningful – teach us to treasure each day, to make every day we live in this world count for something. As we go into the new year of 5775, with days that may be filled with activity or that may stretch emptily out ahead of us, let this be our motto – to think about and to treasure each day, and to do something each day to give that day meaning and to make it count.

101

As For me, I am a Prayer. Creating Prayer and Rituals for Ourselves

 Two verses from the book of Psalms are potent markers in our services.  They come from different psalms and epitomise an important view about prayer in Judaism. 

We begin our services with the line “Va’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon”(psalm 69:14), and we preface the Amidah with the verse ‘Adonai sefatai tiftach u’fee yageed tehilatecha” (psalm 51:17). 

The first literally translates as – “And as for me, I am a prayer for You God at a proper time”; the second reads “God, open my lips and my mouth will tell of Your praises”.  Both work from the premise that the individual is the prayer as well as the pray-er, that the words are already present in the person – only their mouth needs to be opened for the prayer to emerge. It is a longstanding tradition, yet seems to have been lost in our age of the professional leader of prayers, the black words inscribed on white pages of the siddur, the distancing from established Judaism of many of its adherents. These days we feel more comfortable mouthing the words of long dead sages, allowing the rhythm and familiarity to lull us – and apart from the spontaneous prayer in a time of crisis most of us find it hard to put into words the feelings and ideas and needs which are part of our everyday world.

            But the psalms remind us – we can be our own prayers, we have it within ourselves to be able to speak to God.  Surely it is about time to take up the challenge and create prayers and liturgies that speak to our own situation, our own lives and times? 

            It is true that the prayers in our books are polished by the recitation over time, have the patina of holiness acquired through their meaningful longevity. It would be hard to reproduce the depth of spirituality in some of them.  But that shouldn’t stop us creating new prayers, the sometimes raw expression of the soul in search of God.  Every prayer we have began life at the interface of someone’s religious need and mind.  It is overdue that we build such a library for ourselves and maybe for our children.

When we try to tease out the parameters of creating new Jewish prayer and ritual we can see that the three most basic components of Jewish prayer are:

That it is most powerfully done within the context of a community;

That there are rhythms which place you in the world, then draw you in to a special liminal space, and finally bring you safely to rest back in the world in your new state;

And that Jewish prayer almost always operates along a spectrum of tension between two states – for example the universalist with the particular, the immanent with the transcendent, the creation with the revelation……” 

           Many new rituals and liturgies have already been created in recent times. Some are to mark events not already marked in Jewish tradition, others pose different and maybe more meaningful ways of responding to our situation than those already on offer in the prayer book.  For these new prayers to acquire the sanctity of older prayers they need use and they need time.  History will choose what enters the prayer life of later generations.  But for now if we share our prayers and rituals, consult with each other and give each other the tools and the confidence to build Jewishly religious expressions of the cries of our souls we will be taking our place in the process of Jewish prayer. We will become what the Psalmist wanted us to be – our own prayers; our mouths will declare what our souls already know.